FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – For just the third time in program history, the Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks will play host to the rest of the Big Sky Conference and the 2012 Cross Country Championships, to be held at Flagstaff's Buffalo Park Saturday morning.
"It's really special for the team to be able to run here at Buffalo Park, where we run workouts almost every other weekend," said Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Eric Heins. "Our coaching staff doesn't get to see our athletes run cross country meets very often, and our other athletes from the track and field team don't get much of an opportunity to watch us race, so it's really going to be special for our runners."
The No. 22 NAU men will be defending the league title for the fifth-straight year, and is seeking to make history as the first men's team in Big Sky history to win six-consecutive team titles. Only the Northern Arizona women's teams of 1987-1992 have strung together six Big Sky titles in the conference's 50-year existence.
The Lumberjack men also hope to extend its run of seven-straight individual winners at the meet, after 2012 Olympian Diego Estrada took the crown last year.
The Lumberjack women, who finished third in 2011 and were picked to come in second in the 2012 Preseason Coaches Poll, hope to end a three-year podium drought, having won their last team title in 2009.
"In terms of preparation, the Big Sky Championship gets back to a smaller size meet, so our guys and girls will be able to key off of each other and they'll understand how fast or slow they're going," said Heins, who has coached NAU cross country and track and field squads to 11 conference team titles since 2007. "It's especially nice because they're at 7,000 feet where they're used to running practices and workouts everyday, and so it's really going to come down to them running within themselves, understanding what efforts they're running at, and when to make their moves."
Interestingly enough, Flagstaff natives lead the Lumberjacks on both the men's and women's sides for the first time ever. Brian Shrader, a 2010 graduate of Sinagua High School and a 2012 transfer to NAU, has led the men all year, racking up two individual meet titles, the first of which came at the season-opening George Kyte Classic, the only other home event for the Lumberjacks in 2012. Rochelle Kanuho, a 2008 Coconino High graduate, is setting the pace for the women, hoping to earn All-Big Sky honors for the second-straight year after finishing 10th in 2011.
If history means anything, both times that the Big Sky Championships have come to Flagstaff, the Lumberjacks have brought home hardware. In 1972, Rich Sliney brought home medalist honors for the Lumberjack men (women's competition didn't begin until 1982), and in 2003, the last time the championships were in the high desert, Travis Laird and Ida Nilsson each earned individual wins for NAU at Buffalo Park, while the men's and women's squads both took home gold with 25 and 29 points, respectively.
With two new teams joining the fray this year (Southern Utah and North Dakota), the competition is sure to be tough. Southern Utah looks to be NAU's closest competition on the men's side—SUU's Nate Jewkes was runner-up to Shrader at George Kyte on Sept. 1—while No. 16 Weber State will challenge the women.
"The interesting thing is that we've seen a couple of these teams throughout the year – Southern Utah came to our home meet and our women competed against Weber State in Wisconsin," Heins said. "Our leaders on the women's side especially are motivated and they're excited right now to go out and run against one of the best teams in the country and see how we stack up against them."
Other competitors for the men this weekend will be, most notably, Futsum Zienasellassie, the 2011 Gatorade National Runner of the Year who has been NAU's solid No. 2 runner for much of this season in his first collegiate campaign. In addition, Matt McElroy, a sophomore transfer from Oklahoma State that finished fourth overall at the Pac-12 Preview Meet earlier this season, and Caleb Hoover, the 2011 Big Sky 14th-place finisher and one of the team's two holdovers from the last year's conference championship, will also contribute.
On the women's side, following Kanuho will be freshman Rolonda Jumbo, a four-time Arizona state cross country champion out of Chinle, Ariz. who is the heir-apparent to the top spot on the NAU women's team come next season. Completing the women's squad additionally will be Agnes Laurent, Lauren Justus, and Kylee Kieser, all of whom competed at the 2011 Big Sky Championships in Pocatello, Idaho.
The 8,000-meter men's race gets underway at 10 a.m. Saturday morning, with the women's 5K immediately following at 11 a.m. Admission is free for all spectators.
NAU Media Relations will provide Twitter updates during the races using the hashtag #BigSkyXC, and will post Facebook updates with results after the conclusion of each race. Results will also be available on NAUathletics.com following each race.