The goal was already in hand, but the Northern Arizona swimming and diving team had one final exclamation point in mind to punctuate their fifth straight Western Athletic Conference Championship on Saturday in Houston.
In the final event of the 2018 WAC Championships, the Lumberjacks made history with one last victory when freshman Elisa Rodriguez led off, with seniors Roni Houck, Kimmy Richter and Alina Staffeldt finishing a school record 400 freestyle relay in 3:23.27. The senior trio, in their last collegiate race, combined efforts with Rodriguez to post NAU's first 400 freestyle relay win since joining the WAC.
The Lumberjacks had not won gold in the event since 1994.
"It was a lot of fun and it was the exclamation point to a great meet from start to finish," said Lumberjacks head coach Andy Johns. "It was so great to see and feel all the energy and emotions."
The 400 free relay punctuated an 810-point championship performance by the Lumberjacks over the past four days. NAU distanced itself from the runner-up New Mexico State, which finished with 601 points, throughout Saturday's final session. The 209-point margin of victory was NAU's second-largest during its school record run of conference championships.
Johns was named the WAC Swimming Coach of the Year for the fifth straight year and sixth time overall. Diving coach Nikki Huffman was named the Co-Diving Coach of the Year, marking her third straight honor, and she guided junior Tatiana Kurach to her second consecutive WAC Diver of the Year award. Kurach placed first on both the 1-meter and 3-meter springboards this season.
Prior to the relay win, Staffeldt was a three-peat winner in the 200 butterfly with a season-best and NCAA 'B' cut time of 1:59.15. It was her sixth individual WAC gold medal and she wrapped her career with a school record 11 golds, including capturing four this week.
The night began with one of Northern Arizona's strongest events, the 1,650 freestyle, and junior Monique King was stellar in picking up silver with a time of 16:34.79, which places her fourth on the program's all-time performance list.
Even without Kurach, who was held out of Saturday's platform event, the divers still left their mark on the meet with juniors Raquel Gonzales, Christina Torrente and Payne all placing in the top six.
Gonzales and Torrente each reached the podium for the first time on platform, with Gonzales posting a finals score of 232.45 to record a runner-up finish. Torrente joined her as a medalist in third following a career-best score of 217.15. Meanwhile, Payne concluded her championships with a fifth-place finish and her own career-best score of 210.35.
After a strong start, the women's basketball team's offense went cold in a 68-59 loss to Portland State Saturday, snapping the Lumberjacks' two-game win streak. The Lumberjacks (7-20, 4-12 Big Sky) made just 11 field goals after the first quarter and committed 19 total turnovers in the defeat.
The first quarter would not have suggested such an ending as Northern Arizona came out blistering, shooting 62.5 percent and successfully navigating Portland State's 2-3 zone. However, NAU shot just 23.4 percent (11 for 47) the rest of the game as an 11-point first-quarter lead gradually became a nine-point loss.
Despite making just four field goals in the period, NAU led 34-29 at halftime with balanced scoring guiding the team. Five players scored at least five points in the first half with the Lumberjacks field goal percentage still standing at a 46.7 percent clip.
A 12-0 run by Portland State over a four-minute stretch in the third quarter shifted the momentum. After redshirt senior Olivia Lucero connected on a 3-pointer, making it a 39-33 lead for the Jacks with 4:57 left in the third, the Vikings scored the next 12 points before junior Kaleigh Paplow halted the run with the quarter's final points.
While the 45-41 Viking lead to start the fourth quarter did not seem insurmountable, the Vikings used an 8-1 run to open up a nine-point advantage with six and a half minutes left. The Lumberjacks managed to get as close as five, but the Vikings kept them at bay by making 7 of 8 free throws in the final minute.
NAU will play its final two regular-season games at home in the Walkup Skydome this week. The Lumberjacks host Idaho on Wednesday, with Senior Night versus Eastern Washington to follow on Friday. Both games will tip off at 6:30 p.m.