While Northern Arizona entered the day as the No. 1 team in the nation, BYU steadily stole first-place votes in recent weeks leading into Saturday’s NCAA Division National Championship meet.
The Lumberjacks left Louisville leaving no doubt to their claim of being the best in the nation.
Scoring 74 points, blasting second-place Portland’s 127 and third-place BYU’s 165, Northern Arizona repeated as national champions in convincing fashion. The Lumberjacks led as a team from wire-to-wire, ahead at the 2K, 4K and 8K splits before scoring the largest margin of victory since Oklahoma State in 2012.
“I really feel like I shared this with Eric Heins. He created a great culture at NAU and he’s been so supportive of us since his departure,” said Northern Arizona director of cross country Michael Smith. “He called me yesterday and wished me well. I feel like, hey, 10 years from now that one’s mine, but right now I feel like I partnered with Eric for this one. I really feel like he is a huge part of what we did today.”
With Matt Baxter and Tyler Day running inside the lead pack for the entire 10K race, Northern Arizona’s junior duo placed second and third, respectively, in 29:00.8 and 29:04.6, just behind Syracuse's Justyn Knight and his 29:00.1.
While the Lumberjacks likely expected strong finishes from the two, Peter Lomong’s breakout All-American performance put Northern Arizona in commanding position. Finishing eighth overall in 29:33.1, a year after not being among the Lumberjacks’ seven runners at last year’s national meet, Lomong surpassed his impressive Mountain Regional finish of 11th.
With Andy Trouard and Geordie Beamish capping off the scoring runners in 35th and 40th, Northern Arizona finished five runners before Portland or BYU finished four. Luis Grijalva took 60th and Cory Glines took 102nd to round out Northern Arizona’s seven-man squad that will return five runners to next year’s roster.
BREAKOUT ON BIG STAGE
While Northern Arizona theoretically could have won without it given its other four finishes, Lomong’s eighth-place run stood out as both the most unexpected and impressive of the day.
“Just now when you say that, like, eighth? Eighth?” Smith said, “It’s just like, it’s unbelievable. That’s the really cool thing about this sport, there's so much that aims a certain way and you think is going to happen. It’s like a kid playing basketball in his driveway doing a scenario where he is down by one with five seconds to go. You come up with these things in your head and these guys they train like that.
“They are doing these miles on the urban trail early in the morning and they are dreaming of a mile to go at the NCAA championships,” Smith added. “Things like that really do happen and Peter Lomong’s race is an example of that.”
The brother of Olympian and former NAU running standout Lopez Lomong, Peter’s finish gave the Lumberjacks their third top-8 finisher, a feat unmatched by any other school.
“That’s always been the drive, it motivates me in a way. I kind of want to make my own man, and I know I have the potential to do so,” Lomong said. “I wanted to come here and give it all for my team. I didn’t really worry about my individual finish and that paid off just running for the guys.”
FROM THE START
Day and Baxter jumped out to the front immediately, sitting second and third through the first 2K. Shuffling around at the 4K mark, with 12 runners still within three seconds of one another, Day clocked in at second barely a half-second ahead of Baxter in fifth.
“Matt and I are kind of sick thinking we can really go (hard) in the front and still be fine essentially compared to all the other people in the field,” Day said. “We (thought we) could really solidify this if Baxter and I are in the front and we just try to break everyone off -- which I hear that is exactly what we did. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we are just finessing or are out in front just trying to put on a clinic,' we were out in front so we could push the pace, put ourselves in pain and more importantly put everyone else in a really uncomfortable set of pain that they are not used to.”
The lead pack shrank to four runners at the 8K split, with Baxter and Day in a dead heat for first at 23:21.5, as 2016 individual runner-up Knight of Syracuse loomed in third half a second behind and Alabama’s Gilbert Kigen clung to fourth two seconds off the pace.
“Once we got to that halfway point, that’s where you start, not necessarily questioning yourself, but this is the part where if you are going to fall back, that’s where you are going to start falling back,” Baxter said, with praise for the team’s training and running plan throughout the year making the pace sustainable. “I saw Tyler just keep pressing that pace, so I decided to stick with him.”
Knight’s kick at the end won out, as he edged Baxter in his senior season to capture his first individual title. As New Zealand native Baxter crossed the line just behind the Canadian, Day’s third-place finish ranked as the top American runner at the NCAA meet.
“In the moment, I was thinking I am third place as a runner, not any nationality. I was there for my team, I had NAU across my chest and I have Baxter with NAU in front of me,” Day said. “I knew we were doing good and it was just me trying to get to the line and make sure my points counted.”
While Day matched his finish at the Mountain Regional against much stiffer competition, Baxter jumped from last week’s fifth-place finish to second. BYU’s Rory Linkletter, second at Mountain, and Connor McMillian, fourth last week, never broke the top-15 of the NCAA meet. Finishing 30th and 39th, the two trailed teammate Casey Clinger’s 24th-place finish as the Cougars were beaten by the Lumberjacks at all seven spots in the running order.
“Coming into that home stretch, I knew Justyn was right there and like I can never under-respect that guy's kick, so when he went past me I wasn't too disconcerted because I know how much of a quality athlete he is,” Baxter said. “For me coming through in second place, that’s huge and then having my teammate Tyler right behind me, it’s been an amazing experience.”
TO START THE DAY
Running as an individual in her final cross country season, senior Paige Gilchrist took 81st overall among a women’s field of 255 runners.
Bunched into a pack of runners 2K into the 6K, Gilchrist found herself around the 80s for most of her race before finishing in 20:34.8. Fellow Mountain Region member New Mexico won the women’s national championship with a score of 90 points after posting four top-15 finishes.