FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Saturday morning's race for the men's Big Sky Conference Cross Country Championship ended with the best kind of photo finish for Northern Arizona University's Brian Shrader, Matt McElroy, and Futsum Zienasellassie, as the Lumberjack trio proudly crossed the finish line together and sealed a sixth-straight team victory for the storied program.
"The great thing about the depth of our team is that we have three No. 1 guys instead of just one David McNeill or Diego Estrada-type guy, so to speak," said Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Eric Heins. "Our depth is the biggest difference from our team last year, with guys like Cody Reed placing in our top-five again and Caleb Hoover bouncing back after a couple rough weeks of training, one guy can have an off day and another guy will step it up for you."
Though NAU's winning trio virtually tied for a record eighth-straight individual Big Sky win by a Lumberjack, it was Shrader that officially won the race in a time of 24:55.9, thereby joining the ranks of NAU alum Jon Cardenas (2005) and Olympians Lopez Lomong (2006-07), David McNeill (2008-10), and Diego Estrada (2011).
The second homecoming was a special moment for the Sinagua grad and Flagstaff native, now that two of his three wins in 2012 have come at NAU's home course of Buffalo Park.
"Brian obviously ran a great race," Heins said. "He was under control, and he and Futsum waited until the right moment to pull away and not use too much energy early on, and I thought that was great in terms of how they were patient and still were able to win going away like that."
Shrader, McElroy (24:56.3), and Zienasellassie (24:56.7), the race's top freshman, were joined on the All-Big Sky team in the men's race by sophomore and 2011 returner Caleb Hoover (25:23.0), who edged out Weber State's Mike Hardy at the finish line to nab seventh place.
The Lumberjack women added to that total with a pair of Top-10 finishes by Rochelle Kanuho, who finished fifth overall in 17:16.4, and freshman standout Rolonda Jumbo, who finished 10th in a time of 17:46.84. Kanuho earned her second top-five finish (2010) and third All-Big Sky honor of her career with her performance Saturday.
The NAU men posted a team score of 24, completed by Reed's 11th-place finish in 25:34.5, to grab the meet's lowest total the McNeill-led Lumberjacks scored just 19 in 2009. The Lumberjack men now have an incredible 23 Big Sky team championships to their name, and join the NAU women's squads of 1987-1992 as the only teams to win six-consecutive titles in the conference's 50-year history.
Alejandro Montano was right behind Reed in 12th, good enough for sixth on the team, with a finishing time of 25:48.8. Also finishing for the Lumberjacks were Roman Acosta (23rd-26:19.8) and Chris Ganem (29th-26:40.5).
On the women's side, NAU posted a third-place team finish behind the performances of Kanuho and Jumbo with a score of 112. Though the Lumberjacks couldn't crack the Top 25 outside of their top two, freshman Melanie Townsend crossed the line in 27th (18:33.7), while sophomores Kerri Lenihan (18:53.9) and Lauren Justus (18:55.4) rounded out the team score in 36th and 37th, respectively.
"It was tough for us today," Heins said. "I thought our girls were ready to compete with Weber State and Southern Utah, even though they're very strong teams with experienced upperclassmen, and we're still relatively young. Still, I think we learned something from this in terms of our training, we just need to learn how to show up on race day and not just have great workouts in practice."
With their conference season in the books, the Lumberjacks can now look ahead to the Mountain Region Championships, which are being held at Collindale Golf Course in Ft. Collins, Colo. in two weeks. The ninth-ranked women's team will run the 6K, slated for noon Mountain time, while the No. 4 men take on the 10K immediately following at 1 p.m.