After sitting out the indoor track season as he rested from a long cross country campaign, Northern Arizona freshman Luis Grijalva quickly proved his value to the Lumberjacks.
While his finish didn’t score as the Lumberjacks ran away with the national title, Grijalva placed 60th at the NCAA Cross Country National Championship meet, sixth among freshmen. Now he enters the NCAA West Preliminaries in Sacramento seeded 11th in the 1500-meter and 21st in the 5000-meter, ranking third and second among freshmen respectively.
“Redshirting indoors gave me kind of a break after cross country. Just focusing on training, not racing,” Grijalva said. “I think the goals coming into this season, I definitely wanted to make regionals.”
Running a 13:49.75 5K at the Stanford Invite to end March, Grijalva won his section of the event while running without any of the Lumberjacks’ other top distance runners. Three weeks later, Grijalva finished the 1500m at the Bryan Clay Invite in 3:41.21, edging teammate Andy Trouard’s time of 3:41.40 from a separate heat.
The California state champion in the 1600m as a senior at Armijo High School, an hour and a half northwest of San Francisco, Grijalva’s converted 1500m time saw a nine-and-a-half-second improvement from his previous career best in high school. Additionally, Grijalva’s bronze medal time of 1:52.80 in the 800m finals of the Big Sky Conference Outdoor Championships two weeks ago dropped nearly four seconds from his previous PR.
Entering Northern Arizona with a 4:07.68 1600m time and just one 5000m run in high school, Grijalva’s NCAA qualifying times place him within reach of an NCAA National Championship berth.
His weekend will begin with the first round of the 1500m on Thursday, as the freshman runs in the third of four heats. Grijalva’s time ranks third in his heat behind Oregon’s duo of James West and Reed Brown. The top five runners from each heat, along with the four best remaining times, will advance to Saturday’s quarterfinal, in which 12 runners will ultimately qualify to run in Eugene.
“During cross country it is more of a team effort, and then track is kind of on your own,” said Grijalva, who is Northern Arizona’s lone 1500m runner in Sacramento. “You might have some teammates on the line, but at the end it is all you. This feels like a regular race, I am not making it a big race for me.”
The men’s 5000m semifinal will follow an hour and a half after the 1500m wraps up on Saturday, where Grijalva will join Trouard in the event.
NATIONAL TITLE CONTENDERS
While Grijalva is simply looking to reach the NCAA championship meet in his freshman year -- a feat neither Trouard nor Tyler Day pulled off in their initial outdoor seasons -- Northern Arizona’s top runners will be in title contention.
Trouard’s 13:21.07 in the 5000m ranks atop the west and second in the nation. Day’s 28:04.44 tops the nation in the 10000m, with teammate Matt Baxter third nationally at 28:10.05. While their times easily land them as favorites to reach the NCAA championship meet, head coach Mike Smith warned of the craziness sure to come at the preliminaries.
“Every year you will see people not advance who are really high up on a performance list,” said Smith, adding qualifying times could have come under special circumstances. “This meet rewards competing; they are going to have to compete for spots. Luckily this is a program that is very, very focused on competing. We were putting them in situations all year long -- the conference meet is a great example of that. It is not about a time, it is just about beating bodies and that's what you need to do at the regional meet.”
Smith found inspiration in his message from the movie "Heat" starring Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, instructing Day to watch the bank heist and ensuing shootout.
“They rob the bank, they get to the safe, they have duffel bags full of money, and they walk out and everything is really calm,” Smith said. “They go to get in the getaway car, and they look and they realize they are surrounded by LAPD.”
Set for Thursday evening, the men’s 10000m includes 48 runners seeking top-12 finishes in order to reach the NCAA finals. While just 10 of the runners enter with times under 29 minutes, Smith made it clear many in the field see the race as their own personal final and will be running with nothing to lose.
“Then there’s an 11-minute shootout,” Smith said, continuing his breakdown of the movie’s scene. “I told Tyler, ‘Look man, you are going to think this is a done deal, but you are going to walk out of the bank and see you are surrounded, and you have got to be ready.’”