Following the Oregon Trail: Keenan, Baxter & Andersen Compete at NCAA's This Week

Northern Arizona's Adam Keenan, Matt Baxter and Brooke Andersen.
Northern Arizona's Adam Keenan, Matt Baxter and Brooke Andersen.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona University track & field team will send three athletes to Eugene, Ore., this week for 2017 NCAA Outdoor National Championships. Adam Keenan (hammer throw), Matt Baxter (10,000-meter) and Brooke Andersen (hammer throw) all boast elite-level talent and are looking to make big splashes in TrackTown, U.S.A. this Wednesday and Thursday during their respective competitions.

Lucky for you, we break down each athlete and their competitions below.

Adam Keenan | Hammer Throw | Wednesday, June 7 | 2 p.m. MT

Keenan is making his second-consecutive appearance at NCAA Championships, becoming only the second athlete in both NAU and Big Sky history to qualify for two career outdoor national meets (Pascal Tang – 2011, 2012). There, Keenan will attempt to improve upon a 227-10 (69.45m) meet-best throw in 2016, which earned him first-team All-American status and seventh-place.

Part of the reason Keenan is headed to Eugene, Ore., this week is because of his unparalleled level of consistency. Keenan, the native of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, has taken 38 official throws from the hammer circle in 2017 and has only fouled four of those throws. His reliability also extends over into his actual attempts, where his range this season has hovered between distances of 65.68m and 70.18m. And, of those 38 tosses, 26 have eclipsed the 68-meter plateau.

The back-to-back Big Sky Champ and conference record holder currently ranks No. 11 in the nation at a distance of 230-3 (70.18m)—a personal-best toss recorded at outdoor conference championships in mid-May. The competition itself is anticipated to be a highly-contested one, as seven feet separates the No. 2 ranked throw this season and Keenan's.

At 2016 NCAA Championships, the national hammer title went to Oklahoma State's Nick Miller, who notched a 242-8 (73.98m) throw for the individual gold. Keenan will be one of eight throwers in this year's field that also competed at nationals last season.

Historically, Keenan is only the third Lumberjack and 12th Big Sky athlete to advance to NCAA's. Of those 12 athletes, Keenan's 2016 mark of 227-10 stands as the best-ever conference mark turned in at the national meet by over 16 feet. The all-time NCAA Championship record in the hammer throw was set by Southern California's Balazs Kiss in 1996 (265-3, 80.86m).

Matt Baxter | Men's 10,000m | Wednesday, June 7 | 7:08 p.m. MT

While this will be Baxter's first-career appearance at NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore., the New Plymouth, New Zealander is no stranger to the big stage. Baxter is a two-time NCAA All-American: a first-teamer on the NCAA National Championship cross country team and a second-teamer at 2017 indoor national championships in the 5000-meter event.

It is the latter of the two performances, though, that Baxter is looking to avenge this week in the national 10,000-meter race. At indoor nationals, Baxter's left shoe came off around the beginning of the race and despite showing an incredible amount of resiliency in finishing the race with All-American status, Baxter has been waiting in earnest for this meet and this race since early March.

Baxter registered a career-best time in the 10K this season at the Stanford Invitational, clocking in at 28:48.02. Currently, that time ranks 16th in the nation.

As any intelligent and informed track fan could have guessed, Oregon's Edward Cheserek has secured the last three NCAA titles in the 10K. However, with Cheserek's collegiate career over, the field is wide open in 2017. In fact, according to the rankings on TFRRS.com, only a 13 second gap separates Baxter from the No. 5 ranking in the country.

Putting things in perspective, Baxter becomes the seventh NAU athlete to qualify for the national 10K race and the 15th Big Sky athlete to do so. Baxter's bid marks the third-consecutive season a Lumberjack athlete will compete in the national 10,000m race—a feat that has never been accomplished by another conference school. The most recent to do so: NAU legend Futsum Zienasellassie in 2016 (29:10.68—2nd).

The best time ever turned in by a Big Sky athlete in the 10K at NCAA's came from Montana State's Shannon Butler in 1990 when he won the national championship with a 28:38.45 mark. Suleiman Nyambui of UTEP holds all-time NCAA Championship record at 28:01.30, which was logged all the way back in 1979.

The Lumberjack men have two athletes that have won NCAA Championships at outdoor nationals: David McNeill in the 5000m (2010) and Lopez Lomong in the 1500m (2007).

Brooke Andersen | Hammer Throw | Thursday, June 8 | 2 p.m. MT

Andersen is the lone Lumberjack representing the women's squad, but she is as great as they come. The redshirt-junior is arguably the best hammer thrower in the history of the school and conference, supported by the fact she crushed the old Big Sky hammer record at the opening meet of the outdoor season: the UC Irvine Spring Break Invitational. There, Andersen blasted a 221-3 (67.43m) throw, besting the old conference record by over four feet. Ranked No. 3 in the entire country, Andersen has the ability to accomplish some real special things in Eugene this week.

In 2017, Andersen has officially recorded 16 throws and 15 of them have cleared 62m. Additionally, she nabbed three more event victories this season including a huge win at the 90th annual Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays. Andersen returned to that very same hammer circle for NCAA West Regionals and punched her ticket to nationals with a second-place throw that traveled 67.09m.

Historically, no Big Sky athlete has ever won the national title in the women's hammer. Andersen certainly has the capabilities to contend for a national championship, but some other things will have to fall into place as well. For example, last year's national hammer competition featured only one athlete to throw over 66 meters and the reigning two-time champ DeAnna Price from Southern Illinois graduated in 2016.

The nation's current No. 1 Maggie Ewen (72.81m) finished fifth at NCAA's last year and current No. 2 Julia Ratcliffe (69.24m) won the NCAA Hammer Throw Championship in 2014, so the athleticism on display here makes the women's hammer one of the more highly-anticipated and intense competitions of the week.

Contextually, Andersen is the third athlete in NAU history and the ninth in Big Sky history to qualify for NCAA's in the hammer. The last Lumberjack to do so was Lauren Stuart in 2014, and Kayla Kovar of Southern Utah in 2015 is the last such conference athlete to head to the national meet. 

If Andersen can keep her focus, she has all the potential in the world to best the school and conference NCAA Championship records. Again, Stuart set that mark for NAU in 2014 with a 202-7 toss, while Idaho State's Maureen Griffin earned third overall in 2002 with a Big Sky national championship record of 209-7.

The all-time NCAA Championship record happened just last year when SIU's Price won her second-straight hammer title with a 234-8 (71.53m) toss.

MEET INFORMATION: Schedule | Stream | NAU TF/XC Twitter