PHOENIX – It has been 19 years since one program has pulled off a sweep of the men’s and women’s national championships at the NCAA Cross Country Championships.
Colorado’s men and women both did it in the 2004 meet, and the Buffaloes were just the third team to accomplish that feat since the sport was added on the women’s side in 1981.
Now, Northern Arizona hopes to join that elite company.
On Saturday at Panorama Farms in Charlottesville, Virginia, NAU will try to capture dual championships to join Colorado, Stanford – which did it twice – and Wisconsin as teams that have achieved the lofty feat. The Lumberjacks, who train among the Ponderosa pines at about 7,000 feet above sea level in Flagstaff, are ranked No. 1 in the country in men’s and women’s cross country going into the championships.
There is a lot at stake for each team.
For the men, they are on a dynastic run as they have won six of the past seven national titles. Another one would be seven championships in eight years and their fourth consecutive, which would tie the collegiate record held by the University of Texas at El Paso and Arkansas.
Meanwhile, the NAU women are aiming to launch a dynasty of their own under coach Mike Smith, who leads both programs.
Here’s a preview of what to expect at the 85th installment of the NCAA Cross Country Championships.
The NAU men entered the year as the No. 1 team and have remained in the top spot the whole season. They opened the fall with a home meet at the George Kyte Classic, which the Lumberjacks won in easy fashion.
Three weeks later, in the first test against national competition, NAU traveled to Virginia to compete in the Virginia Invitational. There, they won easily again with a 71-point effort as senior Drew Bosley took home first place. BYU came in second with 101 points.
The following week was another in-state meet, the Dave Murray Invitational in Tucson, which saw NAU rest most of its top runners. Still, the Lumberjacks won with 40 points – albeit this was a bit closer as host Arizona was second with 42 points.
NAU had a two-week break after the Dave Murray to prepare for the biggest test of the regular season, the Nuttycombe Invitational. This meet is usually the best preview of what to expect at the national championships in November, with most of the top teams competing.
And again, the Lumberjacks came out on top as they scored 76 points to win the meet. BYU was second at 162 points with Syracuse in third with 251 points. It was a resounding win. But the team’s stiffest competition, Oklahoma State, was not at the meet.
The postseason so far has been the same story for NAU, which won the Big Sky Conference Championships two weeks ago. The Lumberjacks followed up the conference meet with another first-place finish at the NCAA Mountain Region last week, led by junior Nico Young in second place.
It has added up to a dominant season for the NAU men as they pursue another national championship.
Bosley, the NCAA record-holder in the indoor 3,000-meters, has been the one of top athletes for NAU this season. Young, the high school prodigy who has morphed into one of the leading runners at the collegiate level, is rounding into shape at the right exact time.
“They’re as good as advertised,” said Garrett Zatlin, who is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Stride Report, a publication that provides analysis on collegiate distance running at all levels. “I think what you needed to figure out was Bosley, who was absent during the spring season, and Nico, who was good but not as quite top form during the winter and spring months, he looks like he’s back in top form.”
The Lumberjacks have also been helped by graduate transfer Aaron Las Heras from Wake Forest, who was ninth at the NCAA Mountain Region meet and was the third runner for NAU.
Cross country is the epitome of a team sport as five runners contribute to scoring, with the last two runners serving as “displacers,” meaning while they don’t score any points, they can still affect the final score if they finish ahead of another team’s top five runners.
Last year, the title came down to the wire when NAU and Oklahoma State tied with 83 points. In the NCAA, tiebreakers are determined by a team’s top five and who had the better finish. NAU won 3-2 on a tiebreaker as its first, second and fourth runners were ahead of Oklahoma State’s third and fifth runners. It was the first time in NCAA history that a tiebreaker decided the national meet.
“Low sticks” are another name for a team’s top runners who finish in the top 10. They are typically the leaders of a team and the fastest.
But it’s not just about the top runners – especially in what is expected to be another nail-biting finish in the nationals.
NAU’s back half of the roster will be extremely important in capturing another championship. Heading into the meet, it looks likely that NAU and Oklahoma State will be battling to the very end again. In the final U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll before the postseason, NAU was ranked first and Oklahoma State No. 2. They’re separated by only one point, 325 to 324.
Seniors Brodey Hasty and Theo Quax, juniors Kang Nyoak, Santiago Gomez-Prosser and Corey Gorgas and sophomore Colin Sahlman have been key contributors all season long. They’ll have to be again.
“Right now, it’s pretty neck-and-neck,” Zatlin said about NAU and Oklahoma State. “I think NAU is still probably favored. I say that because while Oklahoma State did run very well (at the Big 12 Championships), they need to match every bit of low stick, All-American firepower that Northern Arizona has.”
“There’s a lot of expectations for Oklahoma State freshman Denis Kipngetich, at least from some of the coaches that I’ve talked to,” Zatlin added. “I had one coach tell me that one of his Kenyan contacts thinks he can win the NCAA title. If that’s the case, you probably favor Oklahoma State. But truthfully, regardless, it’s going to be super close. It’s still too close to call.”
Last year was a truly epic finish. This year has all the makings of another one.
While the men were expected to be a national title contender in 2023, the women’s team has come as a bit of a surprise. The elevation of the women’s program didn’t come out of left field though – they finished sixth last year at the national meet, return one of the nation’s best runners in junior Elise Stearns and entered the fall ranked second in the nation.
All eyes this season have been on North Carolina State as the Wolf Pack aims to win a third consecutive national championship. N.C. State is led by senior star Katelyn Tuohy, one of the greatest high school runners ever. Tuohy is the reigning NCAA individual champion in cross-country.
Sitting in the shadows are the Lumberjacks. Like the men, the women have been dominant all season long, winning every single meet they’ve competed in this year.
These two teams have already met, once in October at the Nuttycombe Invitational. In that meet, NAU took down North Carolina State 52 points to 95 points. It was a rather easy win for NAU, but North Carolina State was without senior Samantha Bush, who was unable to finish the race. Bush is back now and just helped the Wolf Pack win the NCAA Southeast Region last week.
NAU is coming off a strong showing at their regional meet last week, which NAU won with 39 points. BYU, which is ranked third in the men’s and women’s fields and could break through if the top two stumble, was second with 59 points.
Smith didn’t run his fastest athlete in that meet, resting Stearns for nationals.
In the most recent USTFCCCA coaches poll, NAU is ranked first while North Carolina State is second. NAU received all 11 first-place votes in that poll.
“I’m very impressed with the women,” said Olivia Ekponé, a 12-time All-American sprinter from Texas A&M University who now works as a content producer for MileSplit and covers high school and college cross country and track and field. “They’re a very strong team. They’re not on the highest pedestal when you think of the NAU men, but I feel like they’re still there. You can’t count them out.”
Senior Gracelyn Larkin led the way last week in the regional with Stearns resting, finishing in first place. Those two figure to lead the way at the national meet for NAU. Senior Annika Reiss and junior Maisie Grice should also factor into the race on Saturday.
This is a team that has been buoyed by transfers. The roster is a mix of old and new. Junior Ruby Smee transferred in from the University of San Francisco and is shaping up to be an important player at the national meet. And with the departure of the University of New Mexico’s head cross-country coach, Joe Franklin, in June 2023, some Lobos made the trek west from Albuquerque to Flagstaff. Larkin, as well as juniors Aliandrea Upshaw and Maggi Congdon, were among the runners who made the jump and will be athletes to watch in the battle for a championship.
It will be interesting if the Australian sister duo of Nikita and Keira Moore compete at the national meet. Keira, a freshman, ran with the team at Nuttycombe on Oct. 13, but hasn’t run since then while Nikita, a sophomore, has been in the lineup.
While they are the favorites, the task ahead is anything but certain for NAU. The Wolf Pack have evolved into one of the premier running programs in the NCAA, something the Lumberjacks are seeking to do themselves. And Tuohy is one of the fastest runners in the nation.
“N.C. State, as we all know, is one of the biggest powerhouse programs in this decade,” Ekponé said. “And they’re looking very strong, especially led by Katelyn Tuohy. But when you have strong teammates like NAU, it’s going to come down to the team that has the very best day.
“Anything can happen. It’s whoever shows the best mindset and does what they’re supposed to do that’s going to come out on top. As long as NAU can stay there mentally, do everything that they need to do, they’re going to be fine. It’s going to be close.”
Looking at the big picture
This season isn’t over, and a champion hasn’t been crowned, but it’s hard to look at what Smith has done during his time at NAU and not be impressed.
Nearly 20 years have passed since the Colorado men and women pulled off a sweep in 2004. Coincidentally, it had happened the year prior as well when Stanford pulled it off. The Cardinal also did it in 1996. Before that, the only other team to do it was Wisconsin in 1985.
It’s not often that both teams are rolling at this time of the year.
“This is pretty unique,” Zatlin said. “When he got there, (former coach) Eric Hines had already established the men as a top-tier team. Smith took it over, and he’s done a great job.
“It takes great coaching knowledge and talent to extend that. But what I think is the best aspect of his coaching is he’s taken a women’s team that has pretty much gotten better with each passing year.
“Maybe it’s not a perfect straight line in terms of improvement, but it’s been solid. To know they were already going to be a podium team without all their star transfers this year was a massive statement in that he saw a long-term vision and he was going to build on it.”
“Then he took advantage of a massive opportunity,” Zatlin continued. “New Mexico was falling apart with their coaching departure, leaving a handful of key names. The NAU program jumped on the opportunity to get them in, pair them with their other top low sticks, and I think that’s ultimately why they’re in a position to win the national title.
“It’s not only the long-term vision, but seeing the moment to capitalize on your opportunity. I think you could argue that the women’s team is why Smith is the most successful coach in the NCAA right now.”
But it’s not just at the NCAA level where you see the impact of Smith.
As Ekponé notes, there are former Lumberjacks who are excelling on the professional and global stage.
“It shows that this man knows what he’s doing,” Ekponé said. “The men have consistently brought in titles – that we already knew going into the season. It’s even hard at the high school level to have a solid boys program and solid girls program.
“So the fact that he is able to get the recruits and to train them – and it’s not just at the collegiate level. If you think about the athletes that graduate from NAU, Luis Grijalva is one of them — he’s incredible. I’m a huge fan of his. These are individuals that not only compete very well at the collegiate level, but they also perform very well beyond in their cross country and track and field careers. It’s hard to do that. That speaks volumes.”
“I feel like Mike Smith is not all about, ‘Hey, what can I get out of you right now as a collegiate athlete?’ I want you to thrive and be successful beyond my three, four years that I have you here,” Ekponé said. “With Mike Smith and what he’s doing at NAU, it’s solid efforts across the board, from recruiting, to training, and getting the best individuals at that program.
“Mike Smith is the guy. If the NAU Lumberjacks can put it together and sweep, it shows the talent that Mike Smith has and the trust that these athletes have in him.”