FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Even in a town with limited sports options, Northern Arizona sometimes suffers from the same ho-hum support as so many other teams in Arizona, usually gaining attention only when it wins.
The Lumberjacks are on the verge of changing that behind a star running back, a gifted quarterback, the program’s longest winning streak in 54 years and the possibility of a conference title.
The attitude won’t change overnight, but the `Jacks are chipping away.
“It’s going to take time; it’s going to have to be consistent over time,” senior quarterback Cary Grossart said. “It’s new, but I think people have started to notice toward the end of the season as we started winning — winning always helps.”
Northern Arizona (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky) wasn’t supposed to be in this position, at least according to the coaches in the Big Sky Conference. The Lumberjacks haven’t won more than six games the previous eight seasons and the coaches saw no reason to think it would be any different in 2012, picking them to finish seventh in the conference.
Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers knew better.
In his 15th season in Flagstaff, Souers saw the progress the Lumberjacks made last season and during the offseason. He had Grossart and dynamic running back Zach Bauman coming back, along with plenty of returning players with experience.
Put that all together and Souers figured the dire predictions were off the mark.
“It’s been coming together the last couple of years,” Souers said. “Last year was close from the standpoint of our quality of play. We were 4-7, we lost a bunch of games that were close at the end and in the offseason matured and developed and understood the things we need to do to finish out a game.”
Northern Arizona has been doing just that all season.
Well, after a difficult start.
Confident that the days of mediocrity were behind them, the Lumberjacks went into the season expecting a big turnaround.
Instead, they hit a speed bump out of the gate against Arizona State, losing Grossart and Bauman to injuries in the first half of a season-opening 63-6 loss to the bigger, faster Sun Devils.
The Lumberjacks dusted themselves off quickly, picking up one of the biggest wins in program history by rallying for a 14-point halftime deficit to knock off UNLV 17-14 the next week, ending a 25-game losing streak to FBS schools.
“The guys have been working hard for three years and we’ve been recruiting toward a higher end for a while now, but getting everyone to believe it takes reinforcement that you’re making progress,” Souers said. “A win like that is affirmation that we are making progress, we were exceeding some of the norms of where we had been.”
The Lumberjacks weren’t done.
Two weeks after taking down the Rebels, Northern Arizona went up to Montana and snatched a 41-31 victory, ending a 14-game losing streak to the Grizzlies.
Montana had become a nemesis for the Lumberjacks and Souers, a former assistant in Missoula, and the satisfaction of that win was right up there with knocking off UNLV.
“To see Coach Souers, to see the respect he got from the people in Missoula and Montana, that made me be proud to be a part of NAU,” Grossart said. “I was so excited for him and for our team to do something that hadn’t been done in a long time was special and will last a long time.”
Those two program-defining wins propelled Northern Arizona into an eight-game winning streak, the program’s longest run since winning 11 in a row in 1958.
Bauman and Grossart have led the way.
Lightly recruited out of Arizona powerhouse Chandler Hamilton High School, Bauman has raced up NAU’s career rushing chart with 1,138 yards and eight touchdowns this season. A junior, he’s second in school history with 3,632 yards, 162 behind Marcus King’s school record.
An undersized quarterback who came out a spread system in high school, Grossart has developed into a steady leader as a senior. Leading an offense that averages over 410 yards per game, he’s thrown for 1,723 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Behind those two stars and a we-belong-here attitude, the Lumberjacks are on the cusp of their first conference title since 2003.
Northern Arizona, No. 15 in the latest FCS coaches poll, slipped up on its chance to earn the title outright by losing a triple-overtime shootout to Southern Utah last weekend, but can earn at least a share by beating Cal Poly at home on Saturday.
Accomplish that and the Lumberjacks will move on to the FCS playoffs, where they can add to their growing following in Flagstaff.
“We just decided in the offseason that 6-5, 4-7 every year wasn’t good enough and we put in the work to make sure it didn’t happen again,” Bauman said. “It’s great to shock everybody.”
Well, not everyone. The Lumberjacks believed all along that they were capable of playing like this.
Now, the community around them is starting to believe, too, even if it is a little at a time.