By Jonathan Gault
November 22, 2019
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — During Northern Arizona’s last two title runs, head coach Mike Smith didn’t have to do much thinking when it came time to name his NCAA championship squad. That was not the case in 2019. NAU has nine guys that could crack the top seven of any other team in America, and Smith had to leave two on the bench.
“They don’t just have four or five very good runners,” said Mark Wetmore, who has won five men’s NCAA XC titles at Colorado. “They seem to have 10. He’s talking about having the luxury of a deep team, and if someone has to go down — which is pretty common at this time of year — someone coming quickly behind them. I’ve never had that. We’ve never had 10 NCAA-level great runners. So that impresses me.”
Smith knows that having to make such a decision is a good problem to have. But it didn’t make it any less tough.
“This was a year when we had more than seven that could do it,” Smith said.
Ultimately, Smith did come to a decision, which he exclusively revealed to LetsRun.com. NAU’s squad for tomorrow’s NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute: Blaise Ferro, Brodey Hasty, Theo Quax, Geordie Beamish, Luis Grijalva, Abdihamid Nur, and Drew Bosley. That means that sophomore Ryan Raff, who ran in the team’s top five at four meets this year — including the Mountain Regional, where he finished 9th (NAU’s #5) — will be sitting out, barring a last-minute injury or illness.
It’s interesting that Smith elected to run Ferro over Raff. Ferro has only run two races this year; both times, he finished behind Raff. At Nuttycombe, Raff was 56th in 24:20 and Ferro was 70th in 24:26. Then at regionals, Raff was 9th in 30:44 and Ferro was 15th in 30:52.
But Ferro also ran significantly better at NCAAs last year (26th) than Raff (151st), and his PRs (13:50/28:22) are far superior (14:17/29:27). Running him is a slight gamble, but it’s also a calculated one. Ferro’s best day is better than Raff’s best day, and if Ferro bombs, NAU has the depth to compensate for him.
This could be academic; NAU would have been heavy favorites no matter who is running tomorrow. But Smith is taking nothing for granted as the Lumberjacks chase a fourth straight title. He offers daily reminders to his squad that past results don’t matter; every win must be earned anew.
“One of the greatest adversaries for a team like us is comfort,” Smith says.
Overall Smith believes NAU has done a good job avoiding that. After losing leaders Matt Baxter and Tyler Day, the two men who scored on all three of NAU’s title teams, Smith knew this team would be a different and challenged the 2019 Lumberjacks to create their own identity. With one day left in the season, that identity is clear: a true team that sticks together at the front of races and run for each other.
“I told them that the meeting we have a week out from this race, that outside of the outcomes, whatever the results show, I’m so proud of how they’ve focused on each other this season,” Smith said.
Talk about tomorrow’s meet on our messageboard: MB: Official 2019 NCAA XC Discussion Thread – We’ll be doing a live pre-race show starting at 10 am ET.