Updated: Dec 30, 2019
Rivalries create thrill.
It's a simple fact that can be seen at nearly any level. Rivalries can define legacies, build reputations, and establish narratives for years to come. Competition is one thing, but the emotion and passion tied into facing a specific opponent?
Well, that's where the thrill comes in.
And maybe that's why the general consensus about the long battle between NAU and BYU is that it is the greatest rivalry of all time, only a month and a half after the pinnacle of a climactic redemption result. Between the trash talking and heart-wrenching finishes, it is hard to find a rivalry in our sport with the same level of emotion.
Yet, up until this year, the rivalry was admittedly one-sided.
BYU’s national title result in Terre Haute felt so wildly impactful, as it seemingly gave validation to a rivalry where both sides could claim victories. Up until November, BYU held the unfortunate title of the "...best team to never win an NCAA Championship".
But with NCAA gold now in their possession, BYU has a spot in the history books and that can now be the starting point of how their legacy is defined.
But cross country is just one part of the equation. While NAU has been the clear dominator on the grass over the past few years, BYU has had the upper-hand when it comes to national qualifiers for both the indoor and outdoor national meets.
NAU and BYU have been competitive throughout the years, but it was in 2016 when both programs began to elevate to a level beyond being just nationally competitive. In the eyes of many, they were elite - and it is the fall of 2016 where we will begin the story of the two best cross country teams of the modern era.
* * *
The Seeds of Conflict
2016 was the start of the NAU dynasty.
With Coach Eric Heins and top runner Futsum Zienasellassie in their final years with the program, the Lumberjacks were the favorites to take home their first national title in cross country. BYU came into the race ranked 4th in the country, and as Matthew Baxter, a sophomore at Northern Arizona at the time, said “The team we were focused on was Colorado.”
The men from Provo were not even in scope.
The Lumberjacks would go on to win the national title in Terre Haute while BYU faded to 7th. That win, however, was far from NAU's peak.
“Part of the win was luck." Baxter explained to TSR. "For us to win off of such a high point total, and for our team to not even have its best day, it was kind of lucky how everything worked out.”
Teammate Tyler Day didn't even think the team had won.
"Coach Heins didn't see Andy Trouard sneak through. He told us that we probably got 2nd or 3rd. So I'm listening to the announcer read off the top four teams, and before they announce the winner I'm thinking 'Man, did we really do that poorly that we fell off the podium?'"
While it may not have been the best NAU team of the era, they were more than capable of beating everyone else in the country, even on a day where things didn't go perfectly...and their competition seemingly understood that.
After mobbing Coach Heins in a celebratory dog pile and hoisting Northern Arizona's first national championship trophy in school history, the newly crowned champions ventured back to their hotel. On their way up the elevator, they ran into a BYU runner who graciously offered his congratulations.
But before the athlete and NAU parted ways, the BYU runner had one last thing to say to the team...
Fast forward to the fall of 2017.
The national title race was evolving into a two-team battle between Northern Arizona and BYU and according to Baxter, the 'Jacks knew they weren't going to be able to rely on luck this time around.
"We're [going into the season] thinking, ok, this isn’t going to be luck anymore, we have to get on the start line and be the most prepared team and be ready to win.”
BYU also knew, according to Rory Linkletter, that NAU was the team to beat in 2017.
As the season progressed, the media began to push the idea of an NAU and BYU rivalry thanks to both programs trouncing their respective competition. The two teams, however, would not face each other during the regular season.
NAU was the going-away winner at Wisconsin while BYU dominated Pre-Nationals.
Linkletter thinks that both BYU and NAU bought into the media narrative. Both teams were eyeing each other, knowing that in order to win it all, they would have to go through the other. Linkletter admits that BYU entered NCAA's that year as a young, “overly confident” squad. The entire year had gone so well for them that they simply couldn’t imagine losing.
It was a perfect storm of two proud programs that were both under the impression that they were the best of the best. Better yet, both teams had bought into the rivalry. However, it wouldn't be until the 2017 Mountain Regional Championships where we would see our first sign that maybe - just maybe - this rivalry was actually coming to life.
“Off the start line, one of the BYU athletes - I have no idea how he did it - basically cut across 10 boxes straight away just so he could get in front of our team.” Matthew Baxter, an NAU junior at the time, told TSR.
Northern Arizona's Tyler Day also recalls the early move.
"For perspective, we're all the way over in the far left box. The gun goes off, we get out hard, and out of nowhere a guy in a blue singlet darts in front of us, cuts off our entire team, and we're like 'What is going on?' I think it was Clayton Young. He went on to apologize afterwards, and I'm pretty sure him and Cory Glines high-fived during the race as we were all battling for position...it wasn't anything malicious, but it definitely surprised us"
The early race aggression was a bit of a surprise to the Lumberjack men. It was the first time that either team had made it a point to acknowledge the other.
Jump ahead to the National Championships where both teams would once again toe the line against each other, this time in Louisville. It seemed like a toss-up as to who was going take home the win, but one thing was clear - both teams were laser-focused on one another.
“I thought it was going to be the clash of the titans” Clayson Shumway, an alternate for BYU at the time, recalls.
“[BYU] was the only team we thought about” Baxter admitted while Linkletter mirrored the sentiment about NAU. Jacob Heslington, another alternate for BYU at the time, remembers the unique emphasis the team had put on the race...
“There was a ton of hype [in 2017] from the school and everything, they sent our mascot…that has never happened.”
And yet, it was apparent early in the race that NAU would take home back-to-back NCAA titles. Clayson Shumway told TSR that “it was such a sad feeling” watching the race get away from them, especially since they came into the meet with such high expectations.
The Lumberjacks got out hard and put their top five within the first 40 places, with three men in the top 10 as Baxter and Tyler Day finished 2nd and 3rd. Meanwhile, the Cougars had four men within the top 50, but no one within the top 20. Linkletter failed to get out hard enough and faded to 39th.
It was assumed that the race would be close, but NAU simply dominated.
It was also assumed that if Northern Arizona was going to win, BYU would surely be the next-best team. That, however, did not happen as the Portland Pilots put together a phenomenal performance of their own to snag the runner-up spot.
Instead, BYU dropped to 3rd.
It was a tough result for a proud Cougar team who had watched NAU all year long, waiting for their chance to prove that they could contend.
After winning, NAU was gracious in victory. They were complimentary of BYU and said that the Cougars' success had pushed them to be better. Likewise, the Brigham Young men approached the Lumberjacks after the race and congratulated them on their victory.
The relationship appeared to not only be civil, but admirable.
However, it was Linkletter who noticed some subtle jabs directed at BYU over social media. One post that stood out was Geordie Beamish’s Instagram post after Nationals. In his caption, he writes “let those little boys talk” quoting his coach, with a BYU flag in the background of a photo with the NAU team in embrace.
It was then that Linkletter realized, “these guys don’t like us”.
Baxter explained that the post was “clearly a reference to something that was happening with the BYU guys, and I would imagine probably Rory.”
The post from Beamish was likely in response to another social media message that NAU had noticed before NCAA's.
Baxter explained that “Rory put out a tweet leading into that 2017 National Championships and it was something along the lines of '27 days until glory' or something like that, and after Nationals one of our guys retweeted that, reemphasizing that you guys didn’t quite get that glory.”
Tyler Day had a different point of view. "From my perspective, I think the post was just talking about the whole rivalry narrative and us being happy that it's finally over and we can kind of move on. I don't know if it was necessarily directed at BYU."
But with a spark usually comes fire.
The rivalry had officially begun.
* * *
NAU, after winning back-to-back titles, was on top of the world. In his first year at Flagstaff, head coach Michael Smith had continued the momentum that Coach Heins had started. More so, they had most of their lineup returning, including their top three who had all finished in the top 10.
The Lumberjacks looked like an unstoppable dynasty in the making.
But it was the following spring - not the next year - when the rivalry only "intensified" according to Matt Baxter.
As Rory Linkletter crossed the line to win the 10,000 meters at the NCAA West Preliminary meet, he flexed to celebrate. Some of the NAU runners thought it was a bit much. Baxter made a point to poke fun at Rory in his Instagram post after the race. And Rory? Well, he wasn't happy about it.
“Baxter was the guy we singled out, we thought he was a d*ck" explained Linkletter who is now NAZ Elite teammates with Baxter. "I know Baxter now and I know that’s not who he is, but that’s how he can be perceived”
A week later, Linkletter was competing in the National Championship 10k.
“It was the worst day of my life.”
His last place finish, in his mind, was an “embarrassment”, detailing that he “never felt more like a shadow of myself than I did in that moment.”
During the race, Linkletter heard a contingent of NAU runners, who were sitting along the back curve of the track, chanting at him to "flex" every time he came around the track.
For Linkletter, that moment “solidified, to me, the hate for NAU.”
In retrospect, Baxter admits that “some things got potentially pushed a little bit too far and a lot of focus got put on Rory.” The rivalry wasn’t just fun and games anymore. Baxter says that “[the rivalry] moved a little bit from being fun, to really trying to push each other’s buttons".
"We had a field day with him" Day admitted. "But he did give them a flex so there's that.”
* * *
"Good at Letting Us Win"
Entering the fall of 2018, both teams were determined to not get sucked into the rivalry like they had the year prior. Baxter believes that the team “was the fittest we had ever been” and because of that, they were "pretty confident going into 2018.”
BYU, on the other hand, were focused on running their best rather than trying to beat NAU.
Interestingly enough, the 2018 season was very similar to that of 2017. BYU and NAU did not run against one another until the regional meet where both teams purposefully held back from their best efforts. Both teams ran at Pre-Nationals, but because the field was so large, there were two evenly divided sections. NAU and BYU dominated each of their respective races, leading to more speculation that they would be the two teams to beat at Nationals.
In that Pre-National race, with roughly 2000 meters to go, Linkletter was able to catch Northern Arizona's Luis Grijalva telling him to flex as he ran by.
And when Linkletter went on to win the race, he obliged.
This was one of the few seasons where both teams were more cautious about extending the rivalry past what it already was. Baxter believes that “there was still a push for this emphasis on the NAU and BYU rivalry…we didn’t really buy into it as much as we did in 2017.”
Plus, it seemed to him that BYU was "also hesitant to buy into it”. Leading into NCAA's, the rivalry seemed to have calmed down.
But Baxter couldn’t help himself. In his final season for NAU, he wanted to have some fun. “At the 2018 banquet, I was asked to say something nice about BYU and I said BYU was good at letting us win.”
BYU didn’t bite at the jab, and instead, went into Nationals focused on running their best. In fact, it was the NAU men who seemed most bothered by the comments. “The guys weren’t overly happy with me being a little vocal” Baxter divulged, as they wanted to let their legs do the talking.
When we recalled the interview with Tyler Day, he chuckled and sighed. "Yeah, I was not thrilled about it." he explained. "I was like 'What the hell was that?' I thought we wanted to lay low...They should have never given us the microphone."
"But what you have to understand about Matt is that it's all in good fun" Day told TSR. "He doesn't truly mean it and he's really the nicest guy".
And after all, Baxter put it best.
“Everything worked out.”
In a race that was closer than in 2017, NAU still came out victorious. With six All-Americans, the Lumberjacks put together a performance uniquely mixed with top-tier firepower and overwhelming depth.
BYU did, however, bounce back from their 2017 finish to earn runner-up honors with four All-Americans. Linkletter would go on to compliment NAU. “They had a great day, and they beat us fair and square.”
After their silver-medal result in cross country, BYU was far from content. If anything, they came back with heavy-hitting fitness of their own. Nothing was more evident of that then at the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Championships.
The Cougars had qualified four men to the steeplechase finals and an unbelievable six athletes in the 10,000 meters. While they only scored one point in the steeplechase, they tallied a score of 21 points in the 10k, finishing 1-3-4 with Clayton Young taking home the win.
While both NAU and BYU runners admit that the rivalry wasn’t as significant on the track, they certainly did not want to lose sight of one another. Clayson Shumway recognized the interdependence. "Our dreams are contingent on them failing and their dreams are contingent on us failing".
"Seeing the BYU guys do that well on the track was hard to swallow because I wanted to see the NAU guys doing that.” Baxter explained. "They were on fire during indoors too" Day recalls. "They had a bunch of really impressive performances".
Northern Arizona had laid claim to the grass and dirt, but when it came to the mondo surface, BYU had established a domain of their own.
* * *
When the 2019 cross country season rolled around, it seemed like both programs would be rebuilding, specifically BYU. Coach Eyestone's squad had lost Linkletter, Young, and Connor McMillan while Northern Arizona would no longer have Baxter, Day, and Peter Lomong who were all out of cross country eligibility.
Because of this, NAU was ranked second in our preseason rankings while BYU was fourth. Of course, once the season started, it was apparent that NAU was still the best team in the country. With a trio of redshirt freshmen at the forefront of their lineup, the Lumberjacks dominated TSR’s Preseason #1 Stanford at the John McNichols Invite.
BYU on the other hand, was struggling, as they lost to Oregon at the Bill Dellinger Invitational and barely beat UCLA by a mere two points. Clayson Shumway, a key low-stick and All-American from the year prior, was dealing with an injury and did not race.
As expected, Northern Arizona would cruise through the regular season while BYU slowly regained momentum, picking up a huge, confidence-boosting win over an incredibly talented Colorado program at Pre-Nationals.
Additionally, this was the first year that did not involve the vocal personalities of Baxter and Linkletter. Consequently, there wasn’t any trash talk between the two sides...well, not until the national meet.
The only trash talk that developed was when BYU's Clayson Shumway sent out a barrage of tweets, poking fun at numerous runners and teams before NCAA's.
"I got a text from Coach Eyestone saying 'This is all in good fun, right?'" Shumway explained. "I think trash talk makes the sport a little more fun"
Going into Nationals, the Lumberjacks were the overwhelming favorites to win their fourth consecutive title. If there was a year for BYU to take home the title, it would have been at Louisville in 2017 or at Wisconsin in 2018.
But in 2019, after losing a large portion of All-American low-sticks and experienced firepower - as well as having Clayson Shumway out with an injury - it seemed doubtful that BYU would be realistic contenders for the national title.
If they were going to win a national title, it wasn't going to be in 2019.
Linkletter summed it up well. “Baxter was convinced that this NAU team was as good or better than previous teams” while Linkletter was not convinced that this BYU team "was as good as our team was last year.”
“[They were] the best I ever saw NAU look at regionals.” Baxter told TSR. “This was a no-brainer, this is NAU’s title to lose.”
And according to veteran Jacob Heslington, even the BYU guys didn't think they had much of a chance...
And then race day happened.
In a reversal of roles from 2017, it was BYU who took control of the race from the start. Heslington noted that BYU “had struggled [with getting out hard] in past National Championships”, so they wanted to make sure they didn’t have that same problem.
Heslington also mentioned that the team was “really grateful for our box draw, we got the best one on the line.” Their far right box draw helped place the team in a favorable position at the first turn of Terre Haute's long starting straight away.
As the race unfolded, the Cougars jumped out to an early lead while Northern Arizona struggled to find positioning. The intermittent splits of the race continued to show Brigham Young maintaining their commanding lead. NAU, however, struggled to make up ground, failing to close the scoring gap.
By the 8k mark, it became clear what was about to happen.
When the dust settled and the scores were tallied, the results board had BYU on top.
Brigham Young University had won their first national title in program history on the same course that Northern Arizona had won their program's first national title on back in 2016.
But how? How was this the year out of all year's that BYU won their title?
Linkletter has a theory.
“The reason why we won is we were better in the mud, and that’s because we had big beefy dudes…you look at the average weight of our top seven, other than Mantz, there’s some big dudes out there. The fact that we were all 10k and steeplechase guys really helped us there.”
As for NAU, they have given all the credit to BYU and are ready to get back to work as they prepare for the year to come. Lumberjack assistant coach Jarred Cornfield admitted that the result of this year's national meet stung. “It hurt, we wanted to come out on top."
Still, the opportunity to bounce back is something that Cornfield and the rest of the team are looking forward to. The question Cornfield finds himself asking is “Can we go all-in again with the same risks of being hurt like we were? That gives us the best chance at being great. Some people don’t give themselves the chance to be great because of the fear of being hurt.”
Tyler Day echoed the narrative. "As soon as the race ended, I couldn't wait to get back on the track. It will be interesting to see how we respond."
* * *
Legacy & Respect
In regards to what the rivalry will look like in the next five years, it is hard to say who has the advantage, but it is clear that both teams will be in the title race for years to come.
Both teams are confident that they will continue to be the class of the NCAA for years to come, and why wouldn’t they be? They have dominated their competition over the last four years – and it seems like that will only continue, especially given their history of recruiting. After all, Northern Arizona just secured a commitment from the top high schooler in the nation (Nico Young) while BYU is bringing in three-time NXN qualifier Easton Allred.
Yet, regardless of recruiting, Linkletter is a believer in culture outperforming talent.
“[The next few years] is going to be a testament to culture and what a good team culture can do versus a recruiting powerhouse like Stanford, Colorado, and Oregon – those guys get better recruits, but we have a culture in place that is too strong to beat.”
But as exciting as the future rivalry could be, Cornfield cautions that next year “isn’t about getting revenge on BYU,” but also believes that the NAU culture which focuses on the process, specifically, will continue to build a program that will compete for titles.
The Lumberjacks don’t care about the outside: “What matters is who is in this room.”
Baxter and Linkletter, while confident that the teams will continue to be rivals, aren’t as confident that the rivalry will be as vocal as it has been in the last few years. Baxter believes that 2017 and 2018 are outliers as far as tension and emotion are concerned.
“The right people [were] on the team at the right time...Now that me and [Rory] are both off the team, the rivalry within the teams is going to get more silent, which is what you saw this past year…[NAU] will want to let the results do the talking…that’s what the guys like.”
Linkletter agrees that the rivalry will likely be different in the coming years.
“I’m not sure where the NAU and BYU rivalry will go because…those vocal leaders are kind of gone…the competitive rivalry will still exist, but the emotional side of it will dwindle. Conner Mantz is a quiet guy and he is the leader of this new team. Casey Clinger isn’t going to say anything to ruffle anyone’s feathers and he’s the future of that team.”
But out of conflict often rises respect, and with BYU now boasting a national title of their own, both sides are now able to appreciate each other with a humbled perspective. Despite the passionate discourse and emotional ties to the rivalry, each individual made it a point during our conversations to commend their regional foe.
“They’ve got a great team and an army of guys and we have the same" Coach Cornfield explained. "It's really fun going head-to-head with them and just like in cross country, they are a squad that brings the best out of us and we hope we can push them too”. Matt Baxter expressed similar feelings.
Tyler Day commended the Cougars for their relentless performances despite seeing the Lumberjacks celebrate in front of them for so long. "They were a very worthy opponent".
As for BYU, Clayson Shumway praised NAU for their ability to “win and lose with poise” while Linkletter emphasized that his previous feelings towards NAU are now "water under the bridge". Heslington told TSR that BYU has a "respectful relationship with NAU".
The iconic rivalry will live on and leave behind a lasting legacy, but there are still many more moments to be made. The next five years look to be just as competitive as the first few years. With four titles between them in the last four years, the rivalry has set a high bar, but betting against either of these teams to continue their respective streaks seems counter intuitive.
Linkletter believes the same.
He is confident that this time will be remembered as the “10 year period where NAU and BYU were the only teams who won Nationals for 10 years straight.”
With four years in the books, that prophecy is nearly halfway complete.
What this year taught us is that cross country is an unpredictable sport that can create shocking results. In the end, it was BYU taking home their first title and producing one of the greatest upsets ever.
While the rivalry will likely continue for the ensuing years, the trash talking and animosity has seemingly taken a backseat....for now.
"Clayson Shumway will probably talk some sh*t next year." - Rory Linkletter