Nat’l title adds to NAU’s grip on cross country, swimming

Nineteen conference titles in eight years.  And that’s just two sports.

It’s safe to say that Northern Arizona University owns a couple of Big Sky Conference sports right now.  The word ‘dynasty’ comes immediately to mind.

The Lumberjacks’ men just won their sixth Big Sky Conference cross country title in the last eight years, while the women picked up a runner-up finish.  It was the fourth conference crown in the last five years for both teams, who have a combined 11 titles over the last eight years.

And the cross country titles came within days after the NAU swimming & diving team, which participates in the Western Athletic Conference, claimed its eighth straight WAC crown.

But the bigger news came just three days ago when the NAU men’s team won another national cross country championship, the fourth in the last five years.

The 60 points scored by the men’s team in Stillwater, OK, is the lowest team champion score in the last 16 years.  And it was 2003 when a men’s team was able to place four runners among the top 10 finishers.

This was a true team effort for the Jacks as the four runners ran as a close-knit pack for most of the race, with each runner taking a turn at being the leader.  That’s how deep in talent this Lumberjack team was this year.

It was the freshman phenom from California, Nico Young, that led the ‘Jacks across the finish line, and posted a fourth-place finish overall with a time of 29.58.3 over the 10K course.  Following closely behind Young were Blaise Ferro and Abdihamid Nur, who were practically rubbing shoulders as they crossed the tape together, with Ferro (30:02.0) getting the slight edge for the sixth-place finish and Nur (30:05.3) in seventh.

The fourth member of the pack was Luis Grijalva, who set the race tempo for his teammates through the early portion of the event and passed the lead to Ferro after four kilometers.  The senior from Guatemala just missed a sub-30 time, clocking a time of 30:10.2 for a ninth-place finish.

NAU’s runner-up finish at the NCAA nationals last year broke a string of three straight national team championships.  Now the ‘jacks are back on top and set to begin stringing together more titles.

The women’s team, the reigning Big Sky champion, placed 11th overall, which is a strong move up from 14th at last year’s national meet.  Taryn O’Neill was the top finisher for the Lumberjack women, placing sixth overall with a time of 23:20.3.

The All-American junior from Canada posted the best individual finish in 16 years for a Big Sky women’s runner.

“Two years ago, we hadn’t been to this meet in a decade,” Michael Smith, the NAU director of cross country and track & field, pointed out.  “Then 14th last year and 11th this year… we’re moving the needle at NAU women’s cross country.”

(Photo: NAU Athletics)