FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona men's and women's cross country teams appeared on the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches' Association's (USTFCCCA) preseason Top 25 rankings list that was released Tuesday. The Lumberjack men sit at No. 17 on the list, while the women received seven votes from poll members.
"I think with preseason rankings, a lot of it has to do with the history and tradition of the program," said Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Eric Heins. "So it's great that the people doing the rankings gave us votes that put our men in the top 20, and it's also good because it gives our athletes some motivation to finish higher than where we ranked in the preseason."
The NAU men finished the 2011 cross country season 14th in the nation, behind the performance of All-American and seventh-place finisher Diego Estrada. It was the 18th time since 1984 that the team placed in the NCAA's Top 20 and the first time in six years that it finished outside of the Top 10.
NAU has a nice mix of talent on the men's side that includes an array of young, yet experienced, talent, a trio of transfers, and some solid freshmen that will make up this year's team. Caleb Hoover and Chris Ganem, both of whom traveled to Terre Haute, Ind. for last year's NCAA Championships, are just sophomores, but the pair adds valuable continuity heading to 2012.
Transferring in to compete for the Jacks were senior Roman Acosta (Syracuse), junior Matt McElroy (Oklahoma State), and Flagstaff-native Brian Shrader (Oregon). Finally, Foot Locker Nationals runner-up Futsum Zienasellassie and bronze medalist Nathan Weitz will contribute as freshmen.
The Lumberjack women, on the other hand, are coming off two years of rebuilding following the graduation of two-time All-American Veronica Pohl, among others, so Heins considers the USTFCCCA poll a nice vote of confidence for his women's squad.
"Individually on the track we were able to get some things done last year," said Heins. "But we're counting on a lot of sophomores to step up and be role players and some freshmen to come in and be big time players, so when you look at our team we're much improved over the last three years."
2011 All Big-Sky and All-Mountain Region selection Rochelle Kanuho and Belgium-native Agnes Laurent, both seniors, lead the charge for NAU's women and headline the five runners returning from last season's top seven. The final two spots are largely still up for grabs by freshmen Melanie Townsend, Emma Schraner, and Rolonda Jumbo, as well as a seasoned crew of returners.
The Lumberjacks begin their season with the annual George Kyte Classic, held at 1:30 p.m. (women) and 2:15 p.m. (men) at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff.