FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The 2012 Northern Arizona University cross country season will heat up Friday morning when the Lumberjack men and women take to the Thomas Zimmer Championship Course in Madison, Wisc. for the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational, their biggest and final regular season test before the Big Sky Cross Country Championships.
"This is our chance to see how we stack up against the top teams in the country, so if we can go in there and compete with them it will give us some confidence moving away from this weekend," said Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Eric Heins. "The reason we travel to this meet is to be competitive and to try and beat some teams from outside of our region."
Both the men's and women's races will feature talent the likes of which NAU's runners haven't seen thus far in 2012. Nineteen of the top 30 schools in the nation will compete among the 46 men's squads, while 20 of the top 30 schools in the women's ranks will compete among the 49 teams registered.
The Lumberjack men's team, which has held no less than a No. 19 ranking in the USTFCCCA poll this season and currently sits 18th on the list, will look to make a big statement with an almost entirely new squad. With three freshmen and three transfers on the roster, using this meet to foster team cohesiveness will be key for continued Lumberjack success heading into the postseason.
"Having a lot of other guys around you in a big race like this really throws off your idea of what your pace is, so hopefully each of them can start to pick each other out after the first mile or so and try to get together," Heins said. "Them getting together and holding each other back or pushing each other forward will be pretty beneficial."
Junior transfer Brian Shrader and true freshman Futsum Zienasellassie will lead NAU into battle Friday morning. Shrader is riding a two meet winning streak with titles from both the George Kyte Classic and the Pac-12 Preview Invite, while Zienasellassie, the 2011 Gatorade National Runner of the Year, posted a solid second-place finish in a near-tie with Shrader in California three weeks ago.
Completing the men's squad on Friday will be redshirt sophomore Matt McElroy, who has notched a pair of top-10 finishes in his two meets this season, sophomore Caleb Hoover, the team's only carryover from 2011's eighth-place team, redshirt freshman Alejandro Montano, 2011 Foot Locker Nationals third-place finisher Nathan Weitz, and recently-named Big Sky Men's Cross Country Athlete of the Week Cody Reed.
On the women's side, the Lumberjacks return three runners that competed in Madison last year, led by seniors Rochelle Kanuho and Agnes Laurent and sophomore Lauren Justus. Sophomore Kylee Kieser and Junior Sarah Raber will also compete.
While the upper-class core of the Lumberjack women's squad is invaluable to their continued success this season, it will be the addition of two freshmen—four-time Arizona cross country state champion Rolonda Jumbo and Australian standout Melanie Townsend—that will prove to be the catalysts in vastly improving on the team's 28th-place finish in Madison a year ago.
"Some of our girls have never raced this many runners of this caliber before, so it'll be a bit overwhelming at first," Heins said. "Hopefully the girls who raced here last year will be able to execute their plan, help the others along, and be confident that they understand how the race will play out."
The Wisconsin Adidas Invitational leads off with the women's 6K championship race at 10 a.m. Arizona time, and is immediately followed by the men's 8K championship race at 10:40.
Live updates can be found on Twitter by searching the hashtags #AdidasInvite and #nauxc or by following @Badger_Track (Wisconsin Media Relations), @NAUHeins (Eric Heins, NAU Cross Country) or @NAUSaint (Matthew Sewell, NAU Media Relations).