They started at No. 1. Four months and hundreds of miles later, the Northern Arizona University men’s cross country team finished in the same place—the best in the country for the second year in a row.
At the NCAA Division I National Championship meet in Louisville, Kentucky, on Nov. 18, the Lumberjack squad put up a 74-point performance, beating the second place team by 53. Five NAU athletes finished in the top 40 of the race.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” director of cross country Michael Smith said. “You’re so focused on a single day for so long, and then the morning comes and it’s actually time to do it. They went out and did it.”
Junior Matt Baxter led the way for NAU with a second-place finish with a time of 29:00.78. Junior Tyler Day was right behind him, finishing third with a 29:04.55 performance. The two have gone back-and-forth, besting one another all season, with Baxter just beating out Day this time.
“To have the team perform how they did today was surreal,” Baxter said. “Across the board these guys went all out, not giving into the pressure, and bringing out their best for this team. The win means a lot to us but also those who have supported us along this journey. I am so glad we can bring home another national title for our community in Flagstaff and beyond.”
Baxter and Day led the race from the start and battled with Syracuse’s Justyn Knight for the individual title. Knight eventually out kicked them at the end, but it didn’t matter in the team scoring.
Junior Peter Lomong ran his best race of the season with an eighth-place showing at 29:33.09. Senior Andrew Trouard finished in 35th (29:58.07), while redshirt junior Geordie Beamish rounded out the NAU scoring attack in 40th (30:01.12).
“Some of the mistakes that people make is they come here and try to be superhuman,” Smith said. “Every time they swing, they swing like they’re trying to hit it out of the park but really if you can be solid you’ll be really good. When you put into these guys’ heads that you just have to be solid today, someone in there is going to have a great performance. As a group, we’re going to give those good efforts and someone in there is going to emerge with a really special performance, and that was Pete.”
Freshman Luis Grijalva and redshirt senior Cory Glines also competed, with Grijalva coming in 60th (30:19.32) and Glines coming in behind him in 102nd (30:44.54). NAU posted the lowest team score since 2014 and bested last year’s title run by 52 points.
NAU became just the 17th program in the 80-year history of the Division I Cross Country Championships to win multiple national titles. The team returns five of its top seven athletes for next season. Before winning the championship, the men were a perfect six-for-six in meets this year, including winning the Mountain Regional title, the Big Sky Championships and the prestigious Wisconsin Nuttycombe Invitational.
After the meet, Smith also came away with some brass. The United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association gave him the Bill Dellinger Award for being this year’s National Men’s Coach of the Year. Smith’s successor, Eric Heins, won the award in 2016.
“Coach Smith totally deserves this award,” Day said. “The impact that he made on this program has been outstanding and it’s only his first full year. He pushed the team since the start and has been a great leader for us during this season.”