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2009 Cross Country Season Preview

With the majority of last year’s team returning in 2009, the stakes are higher for the Lumberjacks as they embark on another championship season. Head Cross Country Coach and Interim Track and Field Director Eric Heins knows this season has the potential to be one of the best he has been apart of.

“Both teams return some very experienced runners,” commented Heins. “They also bring in some very talented runners. On the women’s side we return Veronica (Pohl), Astrid (Leutert) and Nell (Rojas). Veronica was an All-American in cross country and Astrid was five spots away and Nell had an amazing outdoor season, so she has shown the ability to be an All-American. When you have those three up front like that, anything can happen.”

The men also bring back the core of its squad that finished sixth at the NCAA Championships.

“When you return somebody like David McNeill who has a chance to win every race that he is apart of, that is always a plus,” said Heins. “Diego Estrada is a year older. Ahmed Osman is an All-American on the track. He didn’t have a chance to run cross country last year, so we don’t know exactly how he is going to be, but we know he can be pretty darn good. Ben Ashkettle also returns.”

The 2008 cross country season proved to be yet another successful year for the Jacks. Both squads added to the trophy case once again with the men and women winning the Big Sky Championship for the second consecutive year. The men placed all five of its scorers in the top-10.

Both teams followed up their championship run in Portland, Ore.,with second place finishes at the Mountain Region Championships in Fort Collins, Colo. David McNeill captured first place in the men’s race earning him All-Section honors. On the women’s side, Veronica Pohl, Astrid Leutert and Nell Rojas garnered All-Section honors as well.

Returning to Terre Haute, Ind., the men claimed sixth place and the women 23rd. David McNeill took home his second All-American honor with a 15th place finish and Veronica Pohl collected her first All-American award at the NCAA Championships finishing 16th overall.

In addition to the foundation of returners, Heins is very pleased with the new recruits who will be joining the Lumberjacks this fall.

“You have those guys returning, and then you add in Jordan Chipangama from Central Arizona College,” noted Heins. We also bring in Tim Frericks as a true freshman. On the women’s side, Lori Hoffman and Torin Shriver are two high school recruits that join us. We have a great group of guys and young ladies who are ready to go out and make a run at the podium this year.”

To keep the teams’ goals in place, Heins will be looking to a few seniors to step up and assume leadership roles. For the men, Dan Lanzillotti returns to the program after taking a year off. He will be the lone senior on the men’s side.

For the ladies, Heins can count on his core of top three runners from last season stepping into leadership rolls. Pohl, Leutert and Rojas come in as seniors and know they will be counted on to help lead the squad.

“On the women’s side, it is a little bit different with Nell and Astrid having been together two full years now,” noted Heins. “They may have different strategies in how they will lead the team. In terms of Nell having won last year, I can see her having a little extra motivation. Veronica was a great leader last year because she brought such a positive attitude.”

One thing the cross country team can always count on is bringing in top talent from outside the States. This offseason proved to be no different with the team landing Eliza Gawryluk from Poland. Heins knows that NAU has a lot to offer to those from over seas.

“The thing you will find is Flagstaff is known all around the world because you have the opportunity to train at altitude,” commented Heins. “We get interest from students in Europe or Australia because they can’t go to school over there and compete at the same time like they can here. For them the appeal is coming here and being able to do both without being pulled into separate directions. For us, it is a mission for our university to bring diversity to our school. That is actually one of the things that we bring to the university is that we will have student-athletes from California, Arizona and Wyoming, but at the same time you have them from Australia, Switzerland and Germany. One, you just see the different culture, so it makes the team a lot more well-rounded.”

With both teams making annual trips to the NCAA Championships, Heins knows the importance of keeping both squads healthy and fresh.

“In distance running, we have the team where if you lined them up right we could win every race, but at the same time we probably won’t have all of our athletes run in every race from the beginning. It is different from a sport like football or basketball where those wins early on really count for you. In cross country, it is a little bit different because you have to perform later in the year and so with training that how it has developed that we wait until later in the year to get things going.”

The Lumberjacks will take part in six races before both squads will run for their eighth Big Sky Championship in 10 years. Expectations are high once again for the teams as both were chosen number one in the Big Sky preseason cross country polls. After all is said and done this season, do not be surprised if you see both teams standing on the podium in Terra Haute, Ind.