FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – It is simple: to win a Big Sky Championship, a team must record the most points compared to its competitors. The last four instances, the Northern Arizona University track and field teams have done just that, with both squads sweeping outdoor conference in 2016 and, most recently, hoisting both indoor championship trophies in Pocatello, Idaho, this past February.
"Being a team with this tradition, I see other coaches and teams gunning for us and trying to place as high as possible," said Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Mike Smith, leading up to this weekend's conference meet. "In some ways, the disadvantage is that some of the hungriest athletes are the ones that haven't won. It's this classic story in sports: how does the champion remain the champion? That's the challenge for us, and it is one I, our coaches and our team embraces. One of the biggest mistakes I can make as a coach is assuming that [winning conference titles] just happens."
Consistency is exciting as well as impressive. However, the recent successes of the NAU track and field program have been built on a foundation of unparalleled efforts from every athlete in each event group. This idea cannot be emphasized enough, especially when one considers the deficit the Lumberjack women overcame heading into the final day of action at last year's outdoor championships (30 points) and their margin of victory over second-place Montana at indoor championships this season (12 points).
While, yes, the scores from the past two conference championships will indicate the men have won by comfortable margins (97.5 points at 2016 outdoor and 29.5 points at 2017 indoor), it takes an insatiable hunger and unrelenting determination to be so good as to secure the last 11 conference titles the Big Sky has doled out (five straight outdoor, six straight indoor). The Lumberjacks fully understand that if they show signs of indifference or weakness at this meet, any one of the remaining 11 teams are more than capable of tarnishing aspirations of a 12th-straight Big Sky Championship. It is a kind of pressure NAU is used to, though, and a target they will proudly wear heading into Sacramento.
"Since we won indoors, I've been thinking about this weekend," said Smith. "For our athletes, there is a great buzz in the air about this meet. There's a great excitement, and they've been waiting for this moment."
Since we are a polite bunch at NAU, we will start with a breakdown of the women's team before moving into a preview of the Lumberjack men.
As the old adage goes, "hope springs eternal," and that level of optimism is palpable among the NAU women's track and field team as we sit three days out from conference.
Part of that positivity is attributed to the performance of redshirt-junior Brooke Andersen. So far this outdoor campaign, Andersen has competed five times, won three of those events and set the Big Sky hammer throw record at a distance of 221-3 (67.43m). Not competing at conference last season due to her redshirting, Andersen—the 2015 conference champ in the hammer—will ride her No. 3 NCAA ranking into Sacramento in the hopes of locking up another championship.
Redshirt-seniors Shanice McPherson and Julia Viberg are also looking to add counted points to the women's cause that the team was not privy to during the outdoor championship run in 2016. McPherson, who tied the conference's indoor long jump record at Big Sky's in February, proceeded to surpass the outdoor record in that event at Texas Relays with a 21-2.00 (6.45m) jump. This year's "Most Valuable Women's Athlete" at Big Sky Indoors after garnering a total of 22 points individually, McPherson will look to improve upon the seven total points the NAU women's jump unit recorded at 2016 Big Sky Outdoors.
Viberg, who won three straight titles in the discus before redshirting in 2016, is looking to become only the second NAU and conference athlete ever to win four championships in the discus event. Lumberjack legend Anna Soderberg accomplished the feat in 1993, 1994, 1996, and 1997.
Interesting to note, the NAU women combined for 10 total points in the discus and hammer throw events at outdoor conference in 2016. This season, they are projected for 22.
The NAU women will also look for big weekends from defending outdoor conference champs Nicole Fotinos (400m), Ashley Taylor (400mH) and the women's 4x400m relay squad. In fact, Fotinos and Taylor joined forces with Jasmine Malone and Maggie Carruth to set the new school record in the 4x4 at the Bryan Clay Invite (3:40.72). On the 2017 Big Sky performance list, Fotinos ranks No. 2 in the 400m, Taylor No. 1 in the 400mH, and Malone No. 1 in the 400m and No. 3 in the 200m. The 4x4 team also sits at No. 1 in the conference this season.
As referenced above, every point has been instrumental toward the last two championship runs on the women's side. Given this reality, it would be irresponsible not to mention that the Lumberjacks, unfortunately, will not have the 36 combined points mustered up in the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m events at last year's championships this time around.
This is not to say NAU cannot score in these events Friday and Saturday; they certainly can, as they boast the Big Sky's No. 3 and No. 5 ranked athletes in the 1500m event and the No. 2 and No. 3 ranked athletes in the 5000m event this season. However, the absences of Melanie Townsend (out of eligibility), Paige Gilchrist (redshirt), Kylie Goo (redshirt) and Kayla Freeman (graduated) on the track this weekend will no doubt feel weird to anyone that has followed the Lumberjack distance program closely over the last couple of years.
For the men, it only seems logical to start with the men's 4x100m relay squad, composed of Tyren Wolfe, Isaiah Kennedy, James Fisher and Kossi Tchenawou. In 2016, the NAU 4x1 team won the conference title for the second-straight season and became the first 400m relay team in school history to qualify for NCAA Nationals. This elite group now includes freshman Wolfe, and it has a chance to become the first Big Sky school to three-peat in this specific event since Sacramento State did so four times from 2004-07.
Arguably the best 200m sprinter in the history of the conference, Fisher eyes his third-consecutive outdoor 200m title and his sixth straight overall. Earlier this season, the senior from Arlington, Texas, became the first athlete in the history of the conference to win three 200m indoor titles, and he will look to accomplish the same feat again this weekend in California.
In 2016, the Lumberjacks finished 1-2-3 in the 1500m event and 1-2 in the 5000m. None of those four athletes (Andy Trouard, Futsum Zienasellassie, Caleb Hoover or Nathan Weitz) will be competing this weekend. Fortunately for NAU, Matt Baxter, Geordie Beamish and Cory Glines are more than capable of pulling the weight. Baxter, Beamish and Glines, all three of whom were members of the 2016 NCAA Cross Country National Championship team, are ranked in the top-five in the respective events they will be competing in this weekend.
Baxter, No. 1 in the conference in the 10K and No. 2 in the 5K, will join Glines in the 10K and Beamish in the 5K. For those who remember, Glines won last year's 10K in exciting fashion, besting second-place Hayden Hawks of Southern Utah by 0.08 of second. In fact, Glines' incredible rally following the final turn of that race earned him FloTrack's "Kick of the Week." He and the rest of the distance men will look to stir up some of the same magic in 2017.
All season long, we have been trying to think of a clever nickname for throws teammates Adam Keenan and Shawn Collins, but maybe it's best to just let their performances do the talking. Keenan and Collins are both the reigning Big Sky Champs in their respective events, with Keenan actually breaking the conference record at this meet in 2016 in the hammer (70.14m). Collins, ranked No. 1 on the conference's performance list, guns for his second individual title in the shot put on Saturday at 11:00 a.m.
At the same time as Collins' shot put event, Obang Odol, Matthew Kisiel and Chris Jones will compete in the men's high jump. As a jumps unit in 2016, the Lumberjacks produced a goose egg as far as points are concerned but are poised to do much better things in 2017. If you don't believe us, believe the stats: Odol, Kisiel and Jones became the first trio of NAU high jumpers since 2012 indoors to surpass the 6-7.00 plateau. Certainly, those three can cause some major damage in Sacramento on Saturday.
The 2017 Big Sky Conference Championships technically gets underway tomorrow with the men's decathlon and the women's heptathlon. Lumberjacks Helena McLeod and Sara Murray will compete in the latter of the two beginning at 11:30 a.m. with the 100m hurdles.
Team events do not begin until Friday at 1 p.m. with the men's hammer. Field events on Friday kick off at 3:00 p.m. with the men's 3000m steeplechase. All times are PST.