FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The reigning Big Sky Champion Northern Arizona men's cross country team, along with the conference's third-place Lumberjack women, will travel to Ft. Collins, Colo. Friday to compete in the 2012 Mountain Region Championships, being hosted by Colorado State University at Collindale Golf Course.
The men return to the regional event to re-create, and hopefully eclipse, its third-place finish from 2011, where Diego Estrada and Jordan Chipangama led the way in fourth and fifth place overall, respectively.
"The men have been ranked in the Top 25 [nationally] all year, we're 18th right now and fourth in the region, and our goal is always to finish higher than our ranking heading into the meet," said Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Eric Heins. "We're going up against some very strong competition, with BYU and Colorado among the top teams in the country, and New Mexico running strong all year, so I would definitely like to see them shoot for a Top Two finish, if not at least a Top Three finish to give them a safer chance of getting into the national championships."
The NAU women have a similar motivation after finishing seventh as a team in 2011, and return to the meet with the majority of last year's squad intact.
"On the women's side, we've had a really good 10 days of practice since the Big Sky meet, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what the ladies can do," said Heins, who will take teams to the meet for the sixth time in his NAU tenure. "They've worked on a few things and I've worked on a few things that we can do better heading into our regional championships. We're ranked ninth this year and just like the guys we want to try to finish higher than what we're picked, and I do believe these girls are ready for that."
The Lumberjack men have built up considerable confidence heading into the meet thanks to their sixth-straight conference crown two weekends ago. Brian Shrader has been the team's leader on the results sheet for the entire 2012 campaign, but as the Big Sky Championships showed fans, the NAU men's supporting cast is barely behind the Flagstaff native in terms of talent.
True freshman Futsum Zienasellassie and redshirt sophomore transfer Matt McElroy crossed the finish line at the conference meet at the same time as Shrader, giving NAU a deadly one-two-three punch for the regional and (ideally) national meets and leaving high hopes to the imagination.
Similarly on the women's side, Rochelle Kanuho has a great opportunity to at least earn an at-large berth in the NCAA Championship meet. Kanuho, a redshirt senior and a Flagstaff native like Shrader, has had a career season, placing 27th at the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational that featured 20 of the nation's top 30 teams, and earning All-Big Sky honors for the third time in her career with a fifth-place overall finish.
"Getting to the national championships as an individual is actually pretty tough—you have to place in the top four individuals that haven't qualified with their team," Heins noted. "Rochelle showed with her performance at the Wisconsin meet that she deserves to be one of those runners at the national championships, but she will have to run the same type of race she ran there, where she got herself out good and just battled all the way to the finish."
A few trends speak volumes about the continuity and the rich tradition of the NAU cross country programs. The Lumberjack men have finished in fourth place or higher at 16 of the last 18 Mountain Region Championships, and have put at least one runner in the Top 10 in 15 of those years.
The women's squad, though they are on the back end of a rebuilding effort, have finished seventh or higher for 17 of the last 18 years, and have been among the Top Eight teams in every Mountain Region Championship except 2010.
Live tweeting will be provided by Colorado State's media relations department, so follow @CSURAMSTRACK or the hashtag #NAUxc to get all the action from Friday's races.
The racing begins at noon with the women's 6K, followed at 1 p.m. by the men's 10K. If history is any indicator, the Lumberjacks are sure to perform well.