EARLYSVILLE, Va. – Close, but just not close enough.
On a nearly perfect day for racing at Panorama Farms, the final result was not exactly what the Northern Arizona University cross-country teams envisioned. Both the women and men entered the NCAA Cross Country Championships ranked No. 1 in the nation and both finished runners-up in their respective races.
What could have been a historic day turned out to be a bittersweet one. NAU was seeking to become the third team in collegiate history to sweep the women’s and men’s national championships.
But a neck-and-neck finish in the women’s race with North Carolina State and a historic performance from the Oklahoma State University men spoiled the would-be celebrations.
This race was projected to be a close finish, and it certainly lived up to those expectations as North Carolina State just barely edged NAU, 123 to 124 points.
Despite competing without its second runner, injured senior Kelsey Chmiel, North Carolina State was able to overcome the loss to pull out the dramatic victory with junior Katelyn Tuohy as its top athlete. It was a heartwrenching moment for NAU when the scoreboard finally revealed the final score, which drew a loud response from fans as they eagerly awaited the final results.
Leading the way for NAU was senior Gracelyn Larkin, who transferred to the school this past summer after University of New Mexico coach Joe Franklin left for a new job. Larkin came in 13th place, running the 6,000-meter course in 19:35.6 to be the lead runner for the Lumberjacks.
“The goal today was to focus on each other and work as a group,” Larkin said after the race. “The result was going to be what the result was. I think the team worked really well together. It was definitely a really tough one at there. But we were prepared for that. N.C. State did a great job today as well. It came down to the last bit.”
The moment was a mix of emotions for Larkin, one of the team’s newcomers. She left Albquerque for Flagstaff and took a chance.
Larkin said she’s grateful she did.
“I was super lucky to transfer in to such a great team,” Larkin said. “The team took me in. I couldn’t have asked for a better group from day one. Really accepting and supportive of the transfers coming in. I’m so thankful for the team.”
Coming in second place for NAU was fifth-year senior Annika Reiss, who competed in her last cross-country race in a Lumberjacks uniform. Reiss finished 15th in 19:36.8.
While the result wasn’t exactly what she hoped for the team, this year is still special for Reiss. There’s a bigger picture to consider – this team has put itself on the map in terms of recognition. A foundation has been laid.
“It was bittersweet,” Reiss said. “We were going to proud of what we did because we gave everything we could. It was a solid day for us rather than an amazing day when you put all of the performances together. All we can do is be happy because it’s been a really good season and it’s a step forward for the program.
“I hope the progam can continue building at this rate because it’s taken a while to get here. We have a lot of potential as a program and I’m glad we took that step forward. I hope the team next year can use that as confidence to build upon what was done today.”
She’s been there from the beginning, watching the program evolve over the years and move up the national rankings.
It’s also marks the end of her cross-country career, and she reflected upon it on a sunny day near Charlottesville.
“I’m really grateful that 18-year-old me chose this team,” Reiss said. “I’ve learned a lot. Coach (Mike) Smith has done a really great job at developing me as a runner, but also the team. I couldn’t have done it without them, really good relationships with everyone. I do it for them. We all do it for each other. It’s cool to work toward a goal with a team.”
Coming in third for NAU was junior Elise Stearns, who ran 19:52.2 to finish in 20th place.
It was not the day Stearns desired – she entered the meet as one of the top favorites to get a top-three finish.
“It wasn’t harder than expected, I knew it was going to be hard, it was just a tough day out there for me personally,” Stearns said. “The legs were a little more shot than I thought. I don’t have too many words.”
Rounding out the rest of the top five for NAU was junior Ruby Smee (54th place, 20:15.1) and junior Aliandrea Upshaw (57th, 20:16.6).
The loss is disappointing for coach Mike Smith, but, as he also said, coming in second place at the national championship meet and feeling that the way says a lot about the team and where it is at. Now, the team knows what it takes to race at a meet of this caliber with a title on the line.
“It’s huge for our program,” Smith said. “We were struggling to make this meet just a few years ago. We hadn’t made it in about 10 years. So this is a big day for us performing at this meet at this level. It shows you how close we are. This is a good, solid day for us and we were second place. There’s a lot to be proud in that.
“We know that we are going to keep coming to this meet, we’re going to keep competing at a high level. We’re going to operate at this level for a long, long time. This is just the beginning for the NAU women’s program.”
Anticipation for this race had been building all fall after last year’s thrilling finish, which saw NAU beat Oklahoma State on a tiebreaker, 3-2. It was the first time that had happened in NCAA history.
And for a moment, it appeared the race was headed down a similar road.
At the 4,000-meter point of the 10,000-meter race, the two teams were tied at 86 points, with Oklahoma State just ahead on the tiebreaker. But then a dramatic shift came in the following kilometer as the Cowboys jumped ahead 54 points to 81 points. And they never looked back from there as they hammered their way to a 49-point effort. Freshman Denis Kipngetich paced the way with this third-place finish, running 28:59.7.
Simply put, it was one of the most dominant displays at the championships the NCAA has ever seen. The 49 points are the lowest amount scored since 2005, when Wisconsin scored 37 points to win it.
The loss ends NAU’s streak of three consecutive titles. The Lumberjacks were trying to win a seventh title in eight years.
Senior Drew Bosley was the lead runner for NAU, coming in fifth place at 29:03.8.
For NAU, it’s hard to be upset when you put in one of the best team performances in program history at the championship meet – the 71 points are lower than all but one of of their six national title wins. Oklahoma State was just better.
Following the race, the athletes were trying to wonder what else they could have done, if anything.
“I personally did the best I could, executed the best I could,” Bosley said. “We executed the best we could. That’s a plain and simple answer, but that’s all we can do. We said in our meeting, 71 points, eight out of 10 years (you win it). That’s one of the best performances that NAU has put together historically. We just don’t beat that Oklahoma State team today. They were great. That’s probably one of the lowest NCAA team scores in history, and for that reason alone, we can’t judge our own race based off of that. We ran awesome.”
Smith felt the same way.
His athletes executed the gameplan he gave them before the race. But it wasn’t enough to top Oklahoma State.
“The men ran one of the best races they’ve ever run in the history of NAU,” Smith said. “They were lights out. They scored 71 points. That would win most years. There’s nothing else we could do. That was a great day for us. And we got beat by a historic team. That’s part of our sport.”
There was a common theme among the NAU athletes after each team finished in second place.
A mix of happiness with a touch of sadness.
“It’s bittersweet,” Bosley said. “But I’m going to hang my head high, all the boys are going to hang their heads high.”
Junior Nico Young was the second runner to cross the finish line for NAU, running 29:04.2 to come in sixth place. It’s the first time in Young’s college career that he’s walking away with this meet with a second-place team trophy.
Young, like his teammates, echoed similar thoughts.
“I think it was on our great end of performances, so I’m very proud of everybody,” Young said. “Although we got second, I don’t think there’s anything else we could have done. We ran a great race. There’s no reason for us not to be proud of it.”
And it’s not the first time in this current NAU dynasty that the program encountered a bump in the road.
Three years ago — as the team was again aiming for a fourth consecutive title as it was this season — the Lumberjacks finished runners-up, coming in second to BYU. Then they rattled off three more national titles after that.
“We did it in 2019,” Young said. “I suspect something similar.”
Rounding out the top five for NAU was senior Aaron Las Heras (18th place, 29:29.1), junior Santiago Prosser (21st place, 29:32.6) and senior Brodey Hastey (25th place, 29:36.3).
For Hastey, it’s the culmination of a long career. He was most the experienced veteran on the team as he was in his sixth year of eligibility. Hastey has been at the school since 2018 and has seen four national titles.
With NAU, Hastey has learned that while yes, winning championships are undeniably enjoyable, it’s more than just about taking home that first place trophy.
“It doesn’t matter what place we get,” Hastey said. “This dynasty we talk about, it’s an outcome of trying hard and trying to do what we always do, which is get out here and do our best.”
Hastey has seen many iterations of this team over his years and has played a role in forming the culture that has factored in the sustained success.
From his perspective, despite the loss, Hastey believes the Lumberjacks will be just fine moving forward.
“I’m very confident,” Hastey said. “I think we have the personnel. I think that these guys really believe in what we tell them. I think that they trust when we correct them on things. And that’s all you can ask for. Especially the guys that have one to two more years, I trust them to step in the roles that Theo (Quax) and myself will be leaving behind and make sure those guys stay on track to what’s important, which is the process.”