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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Despite Northern Arizona’s dominance, EWU and Idaho athletes find the spotlight at Big Sky indoor championships

By John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

For all the high-end talent among Northern Arizona’s distance-running dominators, lesser-known teammates can still find space to soak up a little front-running sunshine.

And even with the hammerlock the Lumberjacks have on Big Sky Conference track and field, they can’t win everything.

So it was Saturday that the likes of sky-probing Savannah Schultz of Eastern Washington claimed another pole vault title and a shy powerhouse from Belize – Idaho’s Mia Sylvester – was heard to roar while crushing a field of throwers. And so it was that an overlooked sprinter from one of North Idaho’s tiniest towns stunned the field in the marquee dash event of the conference’s indoor championships.

Still, the Lumberjacks have Nico Young – and a lot more – and extended their team title streaks in both the men’s (12 straight) and women’s (four) competition.

The man who became the first collegiate to run faster than 13 minutes for 5,000 meters – indoors or out – just a month ago in Boston kicked off the final day of the Big Sky’s run at the Podium with a meet record in the mile – and make that heavy on the kick. Young covered the final two laps of the 200-meter oval in 53.4 seconds – not quite enough to go under 4 minutes after running the first half mile in the back half of the pack, precisely what he wanted to do.

In fact, this meet was something of a tutorial for Young, who also ran third in the 800 in eschewing his usual longer races, and for several of his teammates with their eye on the NCAA championships.

“I wanted to practice tactics in this race,” said Young, who finished in 4:01.84. “I don’t race miles all that often, but it magnifies how important tactics are. So when I go to the NCAAs running 3,000/5,000 I should be really prepared.”

It was a sentiment shared by teammate Colin Sahlman, who took down a 23-year-old meet record in the 800 in 1:47.48 – racing by two-time defending champ Lorenz Herrmann of Idaho with a lap to go when “the plan crumbled after the first lap.

“That’s why I love this meet,” Sahlman said. “Nothing is pretty here. It’s just the art of competing.”

No one practiced that art in more shock-the-world fashion than Montana’s Cooper Hewett.

He was the fastest thing going in little Kendrick, Idaho (“There were 20 kids in my class,” he said), a State 1A champion in the long jump and 200 meters with a history of hamstring problems. That includes recently – he hadn’t competed since the first week of December. He was 16th on the Big Sky season list in the 60, then posted the No. 2 time in qualifying.

“My coach brought me here even though I hadn’t proved anything this season,” Hewett acknowledged. “But when I was warming up today, I looked up and thought, ‘I’m going to win this race. I got this.’ “

A lightning start got him out ahead of favorite Jerome Campbell of Northern Colorado and he held on to win by a hundredth of a second in 6.72 – spoiling Campbell’s attempt to sweep the 60, 200 and 60 hurdles.

“Surreal moment,” Hewett said. “My mind went blank until I crossed the finish line.”

Things are a little less wham-bam in the field events, with all the time between jumps and throws. Nonetheless, a handful of Inland Northwest athletes brought championship juice.

Schultz won her second straight indoor vault title with a lifetime best of 13 feet, 9 inches, outlasting Idaho State’s Brielle Davis in a cat-and-mouse competition. The last of Schultz’s 12 jumps came at what would have been a meet record 14-4¾. EWU assistant coach Eric Allison’s little vaulting ashram has produced 13 women’s titles indoors and out since 2012 – by nine athletes.

“He’s the big reason I chose Eastern,” she said. “He was the one coach who took a chance on me and got me to where I am today.”

Schultz’s teammate, Egypt Simmons, followed up her Friday long jump victory with a wire-to-wire effort in the triple jump, including a personal best 41-10.

For Idaho, the strength was in the, well, strength events – Sylvester winning the 20-pound weight throw and Noah Culbertson the men’s shot put. Culbertson, the season leader, waited until the fourth of six attempts to take the lead and eventually reached a lifetime-best 59-2¾, admitting that “it would have been nice to lead earlier and be a little more comfortable.”

Sylvester had that luxury, bombing out a throw of 67-11 in the second round.

“I was so happy I just wanted to explode,” she said. “I had so much emotion. It was the first time I screamed!”

She had reason. Four of her throws were beyond her previous 65-foot best, topping out at 68-10¾. That earned her a share of the meet’s most outstanding performer honors.

NAU’s women ran up a record 204 points with a distance corps so deep that four-time Big Sky champ Annika Reiss needed three races to win her fifth – teammates Nikki Moore and Ali Upshaw pulling off upsets in the mile and 5,000 before Reiss took the 3,000. A similar theme appeared in the men, when 3K/5K favorite Drew Bosley failed to medal behind teammates Brodey Hasty and Aaron Las Armas, the men’s outstanding performer.

“What’s special about our team is that we’re able to cultivate a competitive environment but still be very happy for each other when everyone runs fast,” Young said. “There’s enough room at the top for all of us.”