Hold my ax: NAU women’s cross-country team gaining national recognition

On the edge of establishing itself as a national powerhouse, the NAU women’s cross-country team is ranked No. 2 in the NCAA in the Division I United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. (Photo by Courtney Vondracek/NAU Athletics)

FLAGSTAFF – Over the past seven years, Northern Arizona University has built a dynasty in men’s cross-country. With six national championships, an abundance of local running trails and high altitude that strengthens the lungs, NAU has become one of the premier college running programs in all of America.

But recently, the women’s team has started to gain national recognition and is quietly creeping up the ranks as well.

The NAU women are currently ranked No. 2 in the NCAA in the latest Division I United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCA) poll, behind North Carolina State. Two weeks ago, NAU went east and won the Virginia Invitational against a field of national competitors with a 44-point effort.

This comes on the heels of last season, when NAU placed sixth at the NCAA Cross Country Championships.

The build-up has been long and slow.

“When I came to NAU, the women’s program had not made the national meet in 10 years,” said coach Mike Smith, who took over the Lumberjacks helm in 2016. “The initial goal was to bring that team back to the national meet. We knew that if the men’s team was having success, with all the same resources and Flagstaff at our disposal, we should have a national-caliber women’s program.

“Initially, it was about recruiting, and building a team that could qualify for the national meets. We did that in 2019. Since then, it’s been about trying to stabilize the level we compete at nationally.”

A transfer from up north

In the early stages of building the women’s program, it was hard to measure success with so little data.

But then an athlete across the country made their way to Flagstaff in 2019.

Taryn O’Neill, a Canadian national who transferred from Villanova, was that athlete. Her transfer sticks out to Smith as a pivotal moment in the program’s turnaround.

As a prep athlete, O’Neill was the British Columbia high school record holder in the 1,500-meters and 3,000-meters, represented Team Canada four times and was the two-mile champion at Brooks PR (one of the most competitive national postseason meets).

“That was the first athlete that I think came to NAU that I thought, ‘Okay, we probably couldn’t have gotten this person a few years before,’” Smith said. “Taryn was a big part of the culture of the program.”

Practice makes perfect

Becoming a great team in sports usually doesn’t happen overnight. Team-building is a process that requires different pieces to fit in the right places. It’s almost like building a puzzle.

For Smith, it was on the dirt paths of Flagstaff that he noticed something was coming together.

“When I think of when it was changing for our women’s program was really building a consistency in the way we were training,” Smith said. “The types of training stimulus that are necessary for these competitions – we were not just having one or two people do these, but the whole team do them, and do them consistently day-in, day-out. Those years were good signs of what would then translate into consistency in racing.”

At NAU, the men and women practice together.

Some programs divide up the two teams and go to separate training locations. Not at NAU, where the collective mindset is a program-wide mentality. Everybody is one unit, working toward a common goal.

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No group is placed higher on the totem pole than the other.

“Smith emphasizes that, ‘Yeah, we race separately, but it’s a collective team as well,’” said junior Ruby Smee. “It helps that the men are very supportive of us being just as good as them, and raising the bar with them.”

Smee transferred from the University of San Francisco this past year and won her first race of the season in a Lumberjack uniform at the George Kyte Classic on Sept. 2.

Another one of the top athletes for NAU is senior Annika Reiss. At Bellingham High in Washington, Reiss set the Class 2A state record in the 3,200-meters that stood until last year.

She has watched the team evolve over the years.

“There’s definitely been a lot of developing since I’ve been here,” Reiss said. “Coach Smith does a really good at developing you as a runner. He’s going to ease you into the program instead of throwing you in. You do get better every year. And I think as we’ve started to get better, we’ve gotten more people looking at us and wanting to join our team.

“Our team has gotten a lot closer over the past couple of years. Having that bond really helps with performance as a team. We’re super close, really good friends, and we know what we have to do on the cross-country course.”

A golden standard

The intermingling of the two programs has affected the women’s team in a positive way.

“Watching them the past few years, it shows that we know we can get our team there as well,” Reiss said of NAU’s men’s team. “We’re good friends with them. We hang out with them, we run with them, we go to practice with them. It’s fun to support them and have them support as well.

“It really is special. The more people you are around, the more people you have to be held accountable for. It is motivating. They cheer us on, we cheer them on. It is nice to be in the same place as them.”

It’s not often that you get to train with a group that has won three consecutive national titles.

For Smith, it’s also a tool as a coach.

“The men’s team set a standard of what’s possible for NAU and Flagstaff,” Smith said. “I think that when we speak to the women’s team about what’s possible, they’ve got good evidence that athletes that train in the same place they do and the same system they do have reached the highest level of the NCAA. It’s always great having a group that has paved the way and done it. It shows their goals are realistic.”

The building of culture

At NAU, the words “NCAA title” literally aren’t spoken, according to Reiss. She’s never even heard the men use the word. That informs a great deal about the culture that Smith has built over the years.

While running is technically an individual sport, the Lumberjacks frame everything in the sense of the team. Each athlete on the team was most likely the star of their high school teams and is used to the spotlight.

But that changes at NAU.

“Smith definitely advocates not to care too much about the external opinions and noise,” Smee said. “We really focus on what we want to do and how we think we’re going. Every workout, we’re checking in if it was a good team workout. There’s really not an emphasis on individuals. It’s a very collective mindset, which I think is really good. They worked a lot on their team culture in the past few years, and last year especially, which obviously reflected in racing when cross (country) is such a team sport.”

Another one of those athletes who has been immersed in the program at NAU and seen tremendous results is junior Elise Stearns, who has morphed into one of the top individual runners in the nation. Stearns was an All-American at last year’s NCAA meet.

“Elise is a good example of what development in Flagstaff over time can do for an athlete,” Smith said. “She didn’t come as a highly recruited athlete out of high school but is someone who has stayed in our system for a long time. She slowly got great experience in track and cross-country to compete at the level she competes at now.

“One of the big highlights for us over the last few years was her fourth-place finish at the national meet last year. That’s one of the highest finishes we’ve ever had for an individual at NAU, men or women. That was just a massive moment for us.”

The fourth-place finish for Stearns and the sixth-place finish for the team showed the rest of the country the work that was being done. In the previous year, the women finished in 23rd place.

Flagstaff was already on the map, but now the women were someone to watch, too.

That caught the attention of Smee, who was entering graduate school and thinking about what to do next after the University of San Francisco. Smee finished in 58th place at last year’s NCAA meet.

“I just really love the way the women’s team has been built up over the past five, six years,” Smee said. “Obviously the men are amazing and a big powerhouse. But coming from USF, which is a smaller school with less eyeballs on it, I liked that the women have been just building.

“They had an amazing season last year, which was a really good glimmer of what they can do with more time and maybe some transfers coming, which we got this year. Honestly, I was just really excited to join a team that was on the up. I didn’t want to join a massive team that has already been winning all the time. It seemed like a perfect storm joining when I did. This season looks like it’s going to be a really good one.”

Running ahead

The NAU women are fresh off an easy victory at the Dave Murray Invitational in Tucson Sept. 29, where the Lumberjacks scored 20 points as their top five runners all rested in anticipation of Friday’s Nuttycombe Invitational in Madison, Wisconsin.

Nuttycombe, often referred to as “Pre-Nationals,” will be the Lumberjacks’ last chance to see the rest of their national competition before the postseason starts. Most of the top teams NAU will face at the NCAA Championships will be in attendance.

With their No. 2 national ranking, the Lumberjacks enter the meet as one of the betting favorites to win it.

The No. 1 team, North Carolina State, features the fastest individual runner in the nation with Katelyn Touhy and is looking to claim its third consecutive NCAA title.

The task is a big one.

But Smith thinks his team is capable of more after last year’s finish.

“The day we were sixth I thought was just a solid day for us,” Smith said. “I thought we left even a little bit on the table. The biggest thing that stood out to me (was) that it wasn’t our best day, and we were still sixth. It shows us what’s possible going forward. It was a so-so day, and we were lights out still and able to finish sixth. That’s the most encouraging thing — if we can really hit something, we’re going to be in an even better place.”

Logan Stanley(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Logan Stanley expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Stanley has interned as a podcast producer for The Arizona Republic and as a reporter at The Olympian.