FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The 2010 cross country season for the Lumberjacks has the potential to be the best anyone has seen at NAU. Coming off of a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in 2009, this year's squad returns all of the key components who brought NAU to the podium in Terre Haute, Ind.
The Lumberjack men will rely heavily on experience during the eight-race season as a total of 10 upperclassmen return to Flagstaff.
Two-time national champion David McNeill returns to the fold for the Lumberjacks, and will be searching for his first cross country crown this season after finishing runner-up in last year's season finale. Joining McNeill in their final years of eligibility are Ben Ashkettle, fifth-place finisher from a year ago Jordan Chipangama, Kam Holbrook, Eric Lynch and Jason Pedersen.
"This year is definitely exciting with all of the experience coming back," Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Eric Heins said. "A lot of them have been there before and have pretty high goals as a group. When you have that experience, you are more confident going into the meets which really helps."
The Lumberjacks do have lofty goals in mind for the campaign. Just like at the beginning of last season, the team sets out to bring the first national championship to NAU. Heins says that with everyone knowing the pressure is on, he feels the team will rally around eachother to try and reach the pinnacle.
"Winning a national title is the ultimate goal," Heins said. "They know that is what they are working for and they are going to fight for it. Making it known that you want to win it all helps you to rely more on your teammates and the support that they all bring to the table."
Although the Lumberjacks are loaded with talent from the senior class, the team will rely heavily on juniors Andrew Belus, Diego Estrada and two-time 10,000-meter All-American Ahmed Osman.
At the national championships last season, the Lumberjacks were without the services of Estrada who was recovering from a lung injury that ended his breakout sophomore campaign prematurely. Before falling ill, Estrada had racked up three top-five finishes, including a fourth-place showing at the NCAA Pre-Nationals.
Belus and Osman combined for five top-10 finishes between them on the season, with both landing on the All-Big Sky team. With a full cross country season under his belt, Osman hopes to bring some of the success he has had on the track over to the championship course in Indiana.
With so much experience returning, it will be tough for newcomers to crack the top seven this season, but Heins believes incoming junior Matthew Coloe can help the team's cause this season.
"I think Matt coming from Australia has been coached to really flourish here," Heins said. "He is coming in as an upperclassman, so he is more mature. He is more of a middle distance guy, but David, Jordan and even Lopez (Lomong) have showed that they can have success in cross country."
Also joining the team this season will be incoming freshman Bahlbi Gebreyohanns who didn't get to compete his senior year of high school, but could make a push for the top seven.
With all of the key components back for the Lumberjacks, the team hopes that come November, this year's trophy will be gold instead of bronze.