Updated: Jan 13
It is no surprise that the Northern Arizona men will be a dominant force in cross country once again this fall. What may come as a surprise, however, is that they are actually our #2 ranked team.
NAU has had their share of worthy competitors over their three-year reign at the top of the NCAA, but could this be the year that they are taken down? BYU and Portland have been formidable opponents over the past two years, but the Lumberjacks have ultimately come out on top each and every time, which is why ranking them at #2 was a decision that we didn't want to make.
Over their past three national title victories, the Lumberjacks have come away with margins of victory of 33 points, 53 points, and 33 points - not absolute blowouts, but big enough wins that the result was rather clear before the final scores were even released.
What is truly crazy to imagine is that any member of the men’s cross country team at NAU who is not an incoming freshman does not know what it’s like to not win an NCAA title in cross country. That vast experience alone is what brings this team back to the #1 spot each and every year.
But the twist this year?
NAU is not our preseason favorite to win it all...something we may end up regretting.
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Last fall, the NAU Lumberjacks came out of the gate with one goal: to complete the three-peat at NCAA's (spoiler alert: they did it). The men looked smooth all season, with no hiccups or serious threats to team wins at any meet.
NAU kicked things off with a clean sweep at the George Kyte Classic, their home meet designed to get shake off the summer rust. While it was rather surprising to see what was essentially a full squad on the line for NAU this early, it was evident that none of NAU’s top athletes were racing at full effort.
The Lumberjacks did not race again for four weeks, making their second appearance of the season at the Wisconsin Nuttycombe Invitational. It was clear that the NAU men had been putting in solid work during their training block between meets, as they made a national-class field look like a JV meet. NAU put four men in the top eight to win the race with a score of 46 points, 89 points ahead of 2nd place Wisconsin.
However, what was even more impressive is that they accomplished this without Matthew Baxter, a serious NCAA title contender at the time. It was in this race that redshirt sophomore Blaise Ferro made a name for himself as he took 8th place overall in 23:29 over the eight kilometer course.
Two weeks later, NAU was back in Wisconsin, taking on the Cardinal race at Pre-Nats. Three men in the top seven and five in the top 15 (not to mention seven in the top 21) is good enough to win just about any race out there, and that is exactly what the Lumberjacks did.
Matthew Baxter was back in the lineup, taking 3rd overall about half a second behind teammate Tyler Day who was barely out-leaned by Grant Fisher. A 41 point win - less than half of what 2nd place Stanford scored - at this stage in the season left no doubt in anyone’s mind that NAU meant business and was going to be a force to be reckoned with come championship season.
Next up was the first of what would be a string of impressive postseason performances for NAU: the Big Sky Conference Championship. NAU nearly swept the field with Baxter, Day, Ferro, and Beamish taking the first four finishing spots. Freshman Ryan Raff stepped up big and finished 11th to round out NAU’s top five. Peter Lomong and Luis Grijalva were notably absent from the lineup, once again proving that NAU was one of the best teams in the country even without some of their All-American talents toeing the line.
The NCAA Mountain Regional Championship was arguably NAU’s biggest test of the entire year up and to that point, but it was also fair to suggest that no one in this race was truly concerned about winning. Most of the top teams like BYU and Colorado were simply aiming for a national qualifier (as was NAU). Even so, the Lumberjacks took the regional title and immediately shifted their focus to the national meet.
In the snowy, frozen terrain of Madison, Wisconsin, the Northern Arizona men would prep for what would be a historic three-peat performance. The race went out very hard, and the coating of snow on much of the course did not make anything easier. However, in the end, NAU came out on top scoring 83 points with SIX athletes finishing in All-American positions.
Day took 6th and Baxter was 15th, while Grijalva, Ferro, Lomong, and Beamish finished 23-26-29-39. The Lumberjacks took down loaded powerhouse programs such as BYU, Portland, and Colorado to run away with a third-straight title. The result surprised no one.
As we look forward to 2019, the goal will undoubtedly be for Northern Arizona to make it four in a row this year. However, in the process, NAU may face some of their toughest competition yet.
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NAU will be losing their top three stars this cross country season, which will be a big hit to their dominance. Matthew Baxter used his final season of eligibility last fall while Tyler Day is also out of cross country eligibility (but should be back during track season). Peter Lomong is also out of eligibility for cross country, leaving the team without their standard top three that we saw for most of last year and 2017.
Going into this season, there is no clear-cut #1 option for the Lumberjacks. For most teams, this would be a major issue...but NAU isn't like most teams.
Geordie Beamish (TSR #18), who won the NCAA indoor mile title this past year, has become one of the more prominent distance runners in the nation and one thing is clear: he has range. His 13:31 5k PR should not be overlooked and neither should his veteran leadership and experience. There may not be a more reliable All-American scorer in the nation than him.
Luis Grijalva (TSR #12) will be returning fresh off an outdoor season in which he ran 13:37 for 5000 meters. He will be joined by teammate Blaise Ferro (TSR #15) who ran a blazing 28:22 10k this spring, backing up the incredible cross country season that he had in the fall.
Together, these three men will be running the show for NAU and any of them could be the top guy on a given day. Their experience, consistency, and otherworldly fitness makes them the best top three in the country.
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NAU’s top five will likely be rounded out by two more studs: Ryan Raff and Brodey Hasty, two men who were listed in the honorable mentions of our individual rankings. Raff ran 14:17 and 29:27 this past outdoor season, making him somebody to keep an eye out for to make a big jump and try to sneak into an All-American position. He was often overlooked on last year's team despite finishing 21st at Pre-Nationals last fall, a performance that put him ahead of guys like Eric Hamer, Waleed Suliman, Eduardo Herrera, and Cooper Teare.
Hasty, the high school four-flat talent, has yet to compete in cross country in college, but ran impressive times of 8:09 and 13:55 this past year on the track. We can expect to see him on the line this cross country season as someone who could make some serious noise as a scorer for the three-time reigning champions. The potential upside he brings to the table is extremely exciting to think about.
Headlining the NAU recruits will be Drew Bosley, Caleb Easton, and Corey Gorgas. This is an elite trio of incoming talent who seem to be (on paper) a perfect fit for a mileage-heavy, cross country-oriented program like Northern Arizona. Could one of these men emerge to be the next freshman star like Luis Grijalva was? Given their individual talent, it seems possible.
But hold on, we're not done yet!
Two more names to keep in mind are Abdi Nur and Theo Quax.
Nur is a JUCO transfer who ran 14:06 at Bryan Clay this past spring unattached. He is an untapped talent who could emerge to be the star that Northern Arizona needs to contend with the Stanford Cardinal.
As for Quax, he had an incredible breakout spring track season, running personal bests of 3:39 for 1500 meters and 13:49 for 5000 meters. Obviously, his talent his immense, but can he translate that success from the track over to the cross country course?
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The NAU Lumberjacks are a reloaded team from last year, and despite losing their top three from 2018, they will continue to be one of the favorites to take home the title in Terre Haute come November.
The deadly trio of Grijalva, Ferro, and Beamish will be hard for other squads to top, and with some younger guys filling in the ranks behind them, the 'Jacks seem primed to be a team of the past, present, and now future.
With three previous All-Americans in the lineup, the question will be how NAU can drive their score down with less experienced athletes. Will they be able to put four or five athletes in the top 40 to replicate the success of last year? It is definitely possible (scratch that, it's probable), but a lot of this is speculation right now. We know they have incredible depth with a ton of upside, but so does the other team that resides on the California coast.
They may be ranked #2 in our XC Preseason Rankings, but it doesn't have to stay that way. Come November 23rd, when the gun goes off and runners jump from the starting line, anything can happen.
Including a fourth-straight national title.