Additional contributions by Garrett Zatlin
We are aware that certain conferences and universities will not be competing this fall due to ongoing concerns surrounding COVID-19. However, for the sake of content, we have constructed these rankings as if a regular cross country season will happen.
In an unpredictable world, the only thing that is truly guaranteed is another year of a dominance from Northern Arizona's men’s cross country team.
Last year, we ranked the men from Flagstaff at TSR #2 coming into the season after winning their 2018 national title. This year, after a loss at the 2019 cross country national meet, we have NAU at our TSR #1 spot.
Why? Well, allow us to explain.
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Last year proved no different than in years past as Northern Arizona was once again a juggernaut team, arriving to each meet as the overall favorite no matter their lineup. We could detail each race, but the fact of the matter is that they were good -- really good, and simply unmatched by their competitors.
NAU often flexed their depth, not always fielding their top-runners, but still pulled away with wins that looked boarderline effortless. Their contingent of redshirt freshmen showed their ability to instantly contribute and they plowed through impressive competition despite their cross country inexperience.
The Lumberjacks boasted returning All-Americans and an insane number of men who had run under 14:00 in the 5000 meters on the track. That plethora of varsity options -- combined with the leadership and training of Coach Mike Smith -- left all of us under the impression that this team was going to win yet another national title in the fall of 2019.
However, the only team that stood in their way was a well-coached and highly-experienced BYU team, as well as brutal conditions at the NCAA Championships.
Through early teams scores in Terre Haute, it became clear that the NAU men had a slow start and that it was becoming increasingly more difficult for them to catch a strong BYU squad. Eventually, when everyone had crossed the line, the Cougars simply had more up-front scoring potency and had secured themselves NCAA gold.
Making the podium and settling for a 2nd place result wasn’t Northern Arizona's end goal, but an upset finish doesn't discourage teams of NAU's caliber.
If anything, it only makes them hungrier.
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The scary part about this year's Northern Arizona team is their unbelievable depth and mass number of talented runners. The Lumberjacks only lose Geordie Beamish to graduation and bring back the majority of their top guys unlike the year before. In fact, one could argue that Northern Arizona could field two lineups and have them both be competitive on the national stage. They're just that good.
As a returning All-American, there were big expectations for Luis Grijalva (TSR #4) last fall as he seemed to be a top-10 talent nationally throughout the regular season. However, he finished 52nd at the NCAA Championships, leaving many of us wanting more.
Even so, that hiccup didn’t linger as Grijalva took the winter track season by storm and ran jaw-dropping personal bests of 7:43 (3k) and 13:29 (5k). With a significant amount of experience under his belt, Grijalva should (once again) be a leading factor in the success of this NAU team whenever they return to competition.
Last year's freshman phenom Drew Bosley (TSR #12) rejoins this group no longer an inexperienced youngster, but rather a cornerstone to the future success of this team. Bosley arrived to Flagstaff eager for his chance to contribute and used every race as an opportunity to prove that he was someone to be feared on the cross country course.
With the idea of redshirting up in the air, Bosley instead emerged as a scorer on an already-loaded team, finishing 21st at Nuttycombe in the first collegiate meet of his career. He later won the BIG Sky title and was the team's top scorer at the NCAA Championships, finishing 22nd overall.
Bosley may be young, but despite his limited experience, he looks like a massively impactful name capable of offering unreal scoring potency to this team alongside Grijalva and a few others.
We then have Abdi Nur (TSR #9) whose contribution to this team came quickly as he raced often throughout last fall. He finished in the top 10 of every race he toed the line for before finishing 33rd in Terre Haute. With a year of experience under his belt, Nur was set to be a top returner in the country who gives this team even more top-tier scoring firepower.
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After redshirting the 2018 cross country season, the duo of Theo Quax (TSR #25) and Brodey Hasty (TSR #30) emerged as impressive scorers despite being only redshirting freshmen. Quax finished 4th at John McNichols and 16th at Nuttycombe, but faltered a bit during the postseason. As for Hasty, he was 6th at John McNichols and 46th at the NCAA Championships, just missing out on All-American honors.
If they can replicate their regular season success in championship settings, then you may as well give the next national title (whenever that may be) to the Lumberjacks right now.
The train of instantly contributing freshmen will likely continue as NAU has added Nico Young (TSR #38) to their roster, arguably the best high school distance talent in the United States since Drew Hunter (and maybe even better).
The California native swept through his high school competition while winning every race he entered as a senior. He finished his senior campaign in style by running 13:50 in the 5000 meters, the fourth fastest time by a high school runner ever. He also ran 7:56 for 3000 meters during the indoor track season which was a high school national record.
One of the most dominant high school distance runners of all-time, Nico Young could be the piece who puts this team back on top of the podium.
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Northern Arizona's wildcard continues to be Blaise Ferro (TSR #43). One of the most talented runners in the country has been plagued by injuries year after year. However, even with the setbacks, Ferro has shown that he is a force to be reckoned with.
He boasts personal bests of 28:22 in the 10,000 meters, 13:39 in the 5000 meters and finished as a cross country All-American in 2018 (where he placed 26th). Last year, he battled to stay within the starting lineup and was eventually chosen to compete at the national meet over Ryan Raff who had been solid for most of last year.
If Ferro is healthy, then there may not be a scenario where anyone in the NCAA can overcome the firepower of the Northern Arizona men.
The last runner that we are going to mention is Ryan Raff (TSR #47). During his sophomore campaign, he tried to solidify his spot as a top seven runner on the team. He battled and was given the opportunity to race in top meets, only struggling at Nuttycombe. He placed 9th in the exceptionally difficult Mountain region and was 13th at John McNichols. Raff also went on to run an altitude-converted 13:40 (5k) this past winter.
What's crazy to think about is that Raff would have qualified as an individual for NCAA's, but since Coach Mike Smith didn't field him in Northern Arizona's lineup, he didn't get to run.
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This team is still loaded with options and they should be hungry to win another title after last year's upset. The return of most of their core and the addition of Nico Young should scare any NCAA team...with the possible exception of BYU. If this season had gone on as normal, this NAU team would be must-watch television.
Sure, we could go ahead and try to make some complex argument about the weaknesses that this team has, but the fact of the matter is that there aren't many. Sometimes, teams just have bad races and trying to say that this team is "too young" or "doesn't have enough firepower" would be misleading.
For those of you keeping track at home, eight different men from Northern Arizona are listed in our preseason individual rankings...and none of them feel like a stretch.
No team is unbeatable (as saw in Terre Haute last fall), but NAU is pretty darn close to it.