POCATELLO, Idaho – When the Northern Arizona University men and women's track and field teams boarded the bus in Flagstaff and headed for Idaho earlier this week, there was a feeling of anticipation that something spectacular could happen this weekend.
Well, after a multitude of exciting performances—many of which ended with gold medals around NAU athletes—that promising idea of hoisting two conference trophies has now turned into a definite reality. For the second time in four seasons and ninth-time overall, the Lumberjack men and women are both track and field champions of the Big Sky Conference.
"It was a huge day for NAU track and field, and for Northern Arizona as a university," said Director of Track and Field Mike Smith. "It's hard to pick one thing about what happened because the performances up and down each event group were absolutely incredible. I couldn't be more proud."
With the team wins, the NAU men (129.5 points) secured their 20th indoor title in program history while the women (114 points) garnered their 12th. The men beat out No. 2 Southern Utah by 29.5 points while the Lumberjack women edged Montana by 12 points.
"The two conference championships are the sum of all the efforts from our athletes and our staff," said Smith. "We came here with what we thought was not only the best two teams in the conference but also the strongest staff in the conference."
After struggling (to his standards) in the mile event Saturday afternoon, Day told Coach Smith he wanted every part of the 3000-meter run and he followed through. Day went onto win the event, joined by fellow cross country All-American teammates Matt Baxter and Andy Trouard who finished second and third behind him. Day's 23 total points were the most of any athlete this weekend at Big Sky's, and proved just how valuable he was.
Just as valuable, though, was McPherson for the NAU women. The two-time Division II long jump champion won that very event last night, but came out today and secured a silver in the 60-meter dash and four more points in the 200m finals. McPherson ended the weekend atop the leaderboard with 22 total points. Additionally, she was the first NAU MVP of the indoor meet since 2006.
"[McPherson] is just so dedicated to the process and that's what makes her so unique, so special," said jumps coach Roderick Townsend. "Thinking about last year, this is 22 points we don't have for the women. What she was able to contribute to the team this weekend was great, and she is certainly deserving of the accolade."
With six athletes competing in at least one finals event today for the NAU sprints crew, the points were surely going to rack up in favor of the Lumberjacks.
James Fisher once again proved he is the most lethal 200m sprinter in the entire Big Sky Conference, securing his third-straight indoor title and his fifth-straight overall.
With his first-place, gold medal time of 21.44, Fisher became the first Big Sky athlete to ever win three-consecutive championships in the 200m event, which is to also say he is the first conference sprinter to win three 200m indoor championships in general.
First came Malone's in the 400m dash. Coming in ranked No. 1 in the conference this season, the sophomore from Chandler, Ariz., practically ran out of her own shoes today and won the event with a 54.43 mark—0.69 of a second better than her previous PR.
Malone's gold medal and 10 points Saturday was the first of her young Lumberjack career. In fact, it was also her first individual all-Big Sky finish. Most impressive, though, about Malone's performance was the fact she became the first 'Jack since 1992 to win the conference's indoor 400m title and only the second NAU athlete ever to do so.
Malone also went onto record an all-Big Sky time in the women's 200m (3rd—24.14).
"At the end of day, that's perseverance exhibited by Malone," said sprints coach Kenny McDaniel. "To bounce back after what she did during last year's indoor conference and compete the way she did this afternoon, I call that 'magical and memorable.' That's something we'll never forget. What she did was outstanding for the whole team title."
It was hard to follow up such a showing, but Kennedy answered the bell in the men's 60m dash. There, he flew past the competition in the second of two heats, registering a PR 6.75 time—tying the NAU record and also sliding into No. 5 all-time in the Big Sky. Kennedy joins Vernon Jamison and Kino Carson as the only NAU athletes to ever win the indoor 60m championship.
Keenan got things started on the right foot for the NAU men, earning the gold and 10 points with a 66-2.00 (20.18m) last-chance bomb. The native of Victoria, British Columbia, actually had the championship wrapped up going into his final throw, but rallied the crowd and brought them to their feet with his final attempt Saturday.
For Keenan, it was his third victory of the year and fifth-career win in the weight event. Already ranked No. 32 in the NCAA, Keenan became the first Lumberjack since Chris Durocher in 2009-10 to win the Big Sky weight throw title in back-to-back indoor seasons.
"He's just a champion, there's no way around it," said throws coach Nathan Ott talking about Keenan. "He's undersized, the smallest guy in the field and absolutely crushed it. He makes it look easy; he's a stud."
The points Tiana Hatler-Stefick was able to provide for the women's cause Saturday cannot go unnoticed, either. Hatler-Stefick has thrown the shot put very little this season because of injury, but stepped up big today and pushed the rest of the competition to their very best as well. Hatler-Stefick finished in fourth (five points) with a 46-4.00 (14.12m) mark.
"For [Hatler-Stefick] to show up and do what she did, especially after the last month or so she has had, I get goose bumps thinking about it," said Ott. "She works so hard and is so tough…I'm just really proud of her."
Northern Arizona's Paige Gilchrist came in ranked No. 1 in the women's mile on the Big Sky's performance list this season, and finished in the same victorious fashion. Gilchrist cruised to the first-place win with a 4:48.85 time, becoming the first Lumberjack to win the conference indoor mile title since 2009. In fact, it was also the first Big Sky individual title of any kind for Gilchrist in her career.
While it took her a couple years to get her first conference gold, it only took about another couple hours for Gilchrist to get her second. Practically sealing the championship on the women's side, Gilchrist won the women's 3000m event as well today with a 9:37.58 time.
Kylie Goo—coming in ranked No. 3 in the conference in 2017—hustled in for the second-place silver medal finish (4:52.34) in the women's mile right behind Gilchrist. The two Lumberjack milers combined for 18 total points, which turned out to be huge for the women's point cause this weekend.
Even though this was only the second time in seven years the NAU men did not win the gold in the men's mile event, Trouard was able to get the next-best-thing: a second-place finish and eight points with a 4:10.31 time. His Baxter (5th—4:12.46) and Day (6th—4:12.60) combined for seven points in the same event.