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NAU Cross Country Matt Baxter joins NAZ Elite

Former Northern Arizona runner Matt Baxter races to the finish line during the 2018 installment of the George Kyte Classic at Buffalo Park. Baxter has joined professional running team NAZ Elite, which is based out of Flagstaff.

Matt Baxter's got a head start when it comes to professional racing.

The NAZ Elite rookie makes his pro debut Friday in the 5,000-meter race of the New Zealand Track and Field Championships, where head coach Ben Rosario will get to see just how far ahead Baxter is.

Rosario brought the Northern Arizona standout aboard in January with the advantage of knowing how hard Baxter had trained while helping the Lumberjacks win three straight NCAA Division I team titles.

“You hear things is how I can best describe it," Rosario said. "You hear how he’s a great leader. There are stories floating about town about this workout he did or that workout he did. You get a deeper understanding about what the athlete is about when he’s training in your town.”

Baxter pushed his talents while with the Lumberjacks under the wing of Michael Smith, the director of cross country and track and field. NAZ Elite's younger runners have shown they can keep up with the veterans when it comes to pace, but mileage is where they usually need to catch up. The amount of miles Baxter ran during his college career has him at another level already.

“He’s ahead of the game. The way that he trained and how Mike trained him at NAU really has set Matt up for success at the professional level," Rosario said. "Mike gave him a lot of high-end aerobic training, so Matt’s base level, where he is starting, is light years ahead of where most athletes his age come out of college. He’s got a head start.”

Baxter's best result in the NCAAs during Northern Arizona's three-year title stretch was a second-place finish in the 2017 installment with a time of 29:00.8. In 2018 he crossed the finish line of the big race in 15th in 29:35.7, and he finished 11th in 2016 in 30:03.1.

He's coming off a 2018 in which he set PRs in the 3000m (7:53.37), 5000m (13:31.00) and 10000m (28:10.05). On Friday, he'll test out his fitness in Christchurch, New Zealand, as he runs for his home country.

Baxter being in New Zealand has been the only slight setback of his NAZ Elite experience. But the timing worked out well, as Baxter is training in summer conditions and on grass while in New Zealand waiting to get his professional athlete visa. Friday's race takes place on grass, something Flagstaff hasn't seen in some time.

Rosario's been sending Baxter workouts, ones similar to what he took on while at Northern Arizona.

“It’s been an online relationship so far, so we’ve FaceTimed a bunch," Rosario said. "And in this day and age you can keep in touch as much as you like. So far, so good. I think it’s been easy in that the training we do isn’t that different from NAU’s. Little differences, but I think it's been pretty smooth.”

Rosario also inherited a gifted international runner who's had time to adjust to American culture during his college career.

“Luckily for me, I don’t have to deal with all that. … I just want to get them over here and get them started and train them," Rosario said.

On Saturday, another first-year NAZ Elite athlete will be in a big event. Kiya Dandena is set to run the USATF 15K Championships in Jacksonville.

Dandena made his debut with NAZ Elite in January at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon with a runner-up result in 1:05:41 and his last race was the USATF Cross Country Championships, where he placed 26th in 30:32.

As for Baxter, his training is also setting him up to take on new distances such as the half-marathon and possibly the marathon. And Rosario expects Baxter to fill in a key spot left open recently as Aaron Braun just recently parted ways with the team.

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Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZDS_Hartman.

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