FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The smile on Brian Shrader's face is all anyone needs to see when wondering if the Sinagua High School product is happy about returning home to Flagstaff.
Shrader felt a yearning to come back to the high desert after spending two years on the cross country and track and field teams at Oregon, seeking a return to the miles and miles of roads and trails that formed him as one of Arizona's elite runners out of high school.
"I came home every summer and every winter [after graduation] and I fell in love with running again," said Shrader, who ran for former NAU 10,000-meter record holder Bo Reed at Sinagua. "I would see guys like Diego [Estrada], now an Olympian, and Tim [Freriks], who I used to run against in high school, and I found myself wanting to be on that team with them."
Shrader and Freriks, who ran for Mingus Union in nearby Cottonwood, initially created a bond as rivals during their junior and senior years in cross country.
"Racing against him always brought out the best in me as an athlete and we traded wins at meets all around northern Arizona," said Freriks, who is redshirting this cross country season. "When I got to know him better over those couple years, through racing and training together in Flagstaff over the summer, it became a dream of mine to someday train alongside him more permanently. To have such a good friend with so much history on the team is a great asset to have."
Through four years at Sinagua—its last as a high school, incidentally—Shrader cemented himself as one of the best runners in the state and the nation, winning Arizona Gatorade Athlete of the Year honors, as well as the state cross country title, three consecutive years, claiming medalist honors at the 2009 Foot Locker West Regional meet, taking fifth at Foot Locker Nationals as a senior, and setting school, city, and region records on the track in the 800, 1,600, and 3,200-meter runs.
Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Eric Heins was caught by surprise when Oregon's distance coach called him about Shrader in the midst of preparations to travel overseas for the Olympics with Estrada.
"After getting a release from Oregon and talking with Brian, I could tell that he was seriously considering coming to NAU," said Heins, whose Lumberjack men are riding a five-season Big Sky Conference win streak heading to 2012. "He came over to the office, and after talking about a lot of different things he seemed like he would be the perfect fit with our team and with my philosophy on coaching and training. "
What was already shaping up to be an exciting trip to London was made that much sweeter within a few days: Shrader committed to coming home right before Heins made the trek across the Atlantic.
The only question that still remained was how he would blend and fit in with his fellow Lumberjacks. Even that, however, didn't take long to materialize into something positive.
"I had no right to a spot, really, without their approval, but they welcomed me with open arms, and because of that it gave me a big vote of confidence and a sense of purpose to run for them," Shrader said.
The Lumberjack men, despite losing five seniors from last season's squad, had a promising outlook even before Shrader made his decision, so with the junior standout now leading the team in workouts, and potentially being the odds-on frontrunner for NAU come race time, no one knows the heights waiting for them in 2012.
"For Brian to step into our first workout and already be pulling away from our group of guys—and I feel we have a pretty good group of guys—was really exciting," said Heins. "Each workout that he does he continues to get better, and you see this look on his face that he's really excited and he's so happy and proud to be there. He's been a great addition to the team for sure."
Even Shrader himself doesn't know his potential with his new team, especially with his renewed childlike joy for being back on Flagstaff's vast trail system.
"I know I haven't touched my limits yet," he said.
Shrader's first test will be on his home course, so to speak, when the Lumberjacks open the 2012 season with the 32nd annual George Kyte Classic at Buffalo Park.