LOUISVILLE, Ky. – As if they were going to go out any other way, the Northern Arizona University men's cross country team ended its perfect season by winning its second-consecutive NCAA Division I National Championship at E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park on Saturday afternoon.
The Lumberjacks dominated the meet, winning with a 74 point performance and beating the next closest team by 53. NAU placed an almost unheard of five athletes 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, and they went out and did it."
Matt Baxter led the way for NAU with a second-place finish with a time of 29:00.78. Just like it has been all year, Tyler Day was right behind him to finish 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 by four seconds.
They did it again! They did it again! NAU goes back-to-back as NCAA Champions!!! pic.twitter.com/8tXlKbTNKx— NAU Track & Field/XC (@NAUTrackFieldXC) November 18, 2017
"Mine and Tyler's rivalry has been present every race, almost every training session this season," Baxter said. "We really tried to work together out there and had discussed each other's race plans. We wanted to ensure that no moves made by one another would be unexpected because the team title was the ultimate goal."
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. The goal was to leave Louisville with another National Championship and that is exactly what this group did.
Day was the top American finisher while Baxter finished with the best performance out of any male athlete that has come out of New Zealand.
"That home stretch felt a lot longer than it looks," Baxter added. "I knew that both Knight and Day were right behind me at that point. All I could do was put my head down and grind. It was an exciting experience and to come away with second - I couldn't be more happy."
Not to be out shined by the top two, Peter Lomong ran his best race of the season with an eighth-place showing at 29:33.09.
"Some of the mistakes that people make is they come here and try to be super human," 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 theses 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 I think that was Pete today."
"You have some really good runners that will go through the NCAA system and never touch eighth," Smith added. "I'm really happy for him. He's a guy who came into my office last summer looking for all the training that he could possibly take and I told him I could give him all this milage, without a guarantee it was going to work. He stayed in Flagstaff all summer and ran up in the peaks everyday. I know how far he's come so when I see him perform like that today, I'm just so happy for him.
"I am my own biggest competition and I ignored the negative inner voices today," Lomong added. "At the end of the race, all I was thinking was that I will not quit on my team. I went out there and just raced with no regrets."
No words needed. NCAA Champions! pic.twitter.com/YX5Wr8VSft— NAU Track & Field/XC (@NAUTrackFieldXC) November 18, 2017
Andrew Trouard finished in 35th (29:58.07) while Geordie Beamish rounded out the NAU scoring attack in 40th (30:01.12).
Luis Grijalva and Cory Glines also competed, with Grijalva coming in 60th (30:19.32) and Glines coming in behind him in 102nd (30:44.54).
The men got off to a fast start on a quick course, with Day and Baxter leading the way from start to finish. NAU had three athletes in the top eight for nearly all 6.2 miles. Even with the three out in front, the rest of the NAU pack stuck together and finished hard at the end to seal Northern Arizona's second national title in school history.
"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."
NAU posted the lowest team score since 2014 and bested last year's title run by 52 points.
Baxter, Day, Lomong, Trouard and Beamish also earned All-American honors with their performances.
Speaking of last season, Coach Smith realizes that this team would not be where they are today without the help of former Director Eric Heins, who stepped away from coaching after bringing NAU its first national championship last season.
"I want to thank Coach Heins," Smith said. "I want to thank him for the team and culture that he created and for what he taught me in our time working together. I feel like I wouldn't have coached the way I did this year leading up to this thing without his mentorship. He's very much a part of what we're doing here and it's an honor to keep it going on behalf of him."
The Lumberjacks became the first program to win back-to-back titles since the University of Colorado accomplished the feat during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
The team also tied a school-record by placing three runners inside the top-25 of the meet.
"This one is for Flagstaff," Smith concluded. "We have such a strong community. The last thing we told them before they got on the course was that we train in Flagstaff. It really gave them confidence the last moment before the gun went off. We know where we train. We're as prepared as anybody and we're supported so much by that community. We're so happy to bring home another National Championship to that town."