Can you at least act surprised?
It's no secret that the Northern Arizona men are going to be ready for yet another title run this fall. They return five of their top six from last year, giving them another ultra-stacked lineup that looks nearly untouchable. In 2018, the Lumberjacks will look to do something that only four other programs in the NCAA have ever accomplished: win their third straight national title.
Considering they return so many superstars from last year's team, it may be best to revisit their 2017 season and understand how truly dominant they were.
Their first legitimate race last fall began at the Louisville Classic. However, it was hardly a test of fitness as they took the top four spots in the meet. Baxter, Day, Trouard, and Beamish were the first four finishers (in that order) while Luis Grijalva closed out the scoring with a strong 11th place finish of his own. NAU would crush their competition, defeating a talented Furman squad by over 60 points. Did Coach Smith's squad just face weak competition or was this team really that good?
The answer turned out to be the latter. Five other teams in that field would eventually qualify for Nationals...
Despite the early season dominance, the Lumberjacks would face much harder competition at the Wisconsin Invite (in theory). Of course, this seemed like just another day at the office for the men from Flagstaff. Trouard, Baxter, and Day battled with Knight and Fisher for the individual win, eventually settling for 3rd, 4th, and 5th. Beamish and Grijalva would have strong performances of their own, placing 17th and 21st respectively. To no one's surprise, NAU walked away with the win, scoring 50 points and defeating second place Portland by 73 points.
Northern Arizona looked unstoppable, but they had not yet faced a BYU team that was gaining national attention for their dominance at Pre-Nats. Was there really another team in the country capable of scaring NAU?
The BIG Sky Championships would prove to be a simple workout for the NAU men. They silenced a Southern Utah team who was having one of the best seasons in program history.
We would continue to see more dominance at the Mountain Regional Championships as NAU took the win once again. However, most teams opted to save their best efforts for the National Championships which would take place two weeks later. NAU may have won, but they knew BYU was going to be a much bigger problem at Nationals...right?
Wrong. Northern Arizona continued what they did all season and cruised through the best competition that the country had to offer. Baxter and Day secured silver and bronze while Peter Lomong had a huge breakout race to finish 8th overall. Andy Trouard had a slight off day, but still managed to finish 35th overall. He was followed by teammate Geordie Beamish in 40th.
In case you didn't notice, all five of NAU's scorers were All-Americans last fall. They easily took the title, scoring 74 points and beating a second place Portland team by 53. BYU was 91 points back.
It was their second straight title, but it was their first without Eric Heins who led them to their first team gold in 2016. As if things couldn't get any better, Matthew Baxter would later announce that the NCAA had granted him another season of eligibility, allowing him to return for the 2018 cross country season.
It's hard to comprehend just how good this team will be over the next three months. Even without Andy Trouard, this is still the best team in the nation (and by a significant margin). We're not saying that they can't lose, but it will be just as tough to beat them this year as it was last fall.
Matthew Baxter and Tyler Day are the greatest pair of true long-distance runners we've seen since Edward Cheserek and Eric Jenkins went 1-2 at the National Championships in 2014. Not only are they currently the top duo in the NCAA, but they are simply the two best cross country runners in the nation (according to our preseason rankings). They're consistent, experienced, and extremely talented. What more could you ask for?
Many people may have Peter Lomong as this team's third scorer, but we like Geordie Beamish to take that role throughout the season. The rising redshirt junior is an incredibly underrated piece of this squad despite being such a crucial scorer for them throughout the 2017 season.
Baxter, Day, and Trouard were a great 1-2-3 punch, Lomong had a breakout race at Nationals, and Grijalva was a superstar freshman. However, Beamish was quietly doing his job without a dramatic storyline. He was 4th at Louisville, 17th at Wisconsin, and 40th (All-American) at Nationals. Those are finishes that most teams can only dream of having in their top runner.
There is no denying that Peter Lomong is a big-time talent. Placing 8th at Nationals is undoubtedly a clear indication of fitness. However, some may question if he'll be able to reignite that magical performance in 2018. He had a solid 2017 season, but didn't have a performance that suggested he was going to be in the top 10 (or even top 20) at NCAA's that year. In fact, we have yet to see him break either 14 minutes for 5000 meters or 30 minutes for 10,000 meters. Those are traditional barriers that are easily broken for some of the nation's best top distance runners.
The final scorer we have in NAU's projected scoring five is rising sophomore Luis Grijalva who was considered one of the top freshmen in the nation last fall. Placing 11th at Louisville and 21st at Wisconsin are huge performances for someone as young as himself. It's amazing that his "worst" race of the season was when he finished 60th at the national meet. At that same meet, there were 10 other teams who didn't have their top guy run that well.
It would be criminal to ignore the rest of this roster. Other guys like Harvey Nelson, Cade Burks, and Ryan Wolff were on the outside looking in at last year's top seven. They might not get all of the attention that the varsity lineup does, but they'll provide some respectable depth in case injuries arise.
The person on this roster I'm most interested in seeing is Blaise Ferro. The CBA grad has yet to run cross country, but his 13:50 personal best on the track shows us that he could be the real deal in 2018. It's impossible to say where he is currently at in his fitness, but he has the potential to emerge as a scorer if he has the breakout season we think he will.
NAU's recruiting class was talented to begin with, but the addition of Brodey Hasty makes this one of the best set of incoming freshmen in the nation. There are a number of former high school stars who could have an instant impact (such as Collin Ullrich and Ryan Raff). However, stealing Hasty from Oregon has positioned NAU for a promising future.
Hasty could enter the lineup this season, but this team is already so deep that they may not need him. Don't be surprised if they decide to redshirt him in order to preserve his eligibility.
It's exhausting to detail all of NAU's achievements and scoring weapons. They are, without a doubt, the best team in the NCAA and I think almost everyone would agree. Still, nothing is guaranteed. Andy Trouard, the 3rd place finish at the Wisconsin Invite, is gone and most people seem to ignore that fact. Could you imagine losing an individual national champion from your team and think "eh, that's no big deal"? This team isn't unbeatable, but there are minor vulnerabilities that only the best teams will be able to exploit.
When Coach Eric Heins stepped down from his coaching position in 2016, he left in his wake the building blocks of a dynasty. With the 2018 season fast approaching, Coach Mike Smith will look to earn that coveted third title and establish Northern Arizona as one of the greatest collegiate cross country teams ever.
Prepare yourselves. We're about to witness history.