FT. COLLINS, Colo. – For just the sixth time in school history, the Northern Arizona men's cross country team came away with a team victory at the NCAA Mountain Region Championships. Thanks to Top-10 finishes by Futsum Zienasellassie, Brian Shrader, and Matt McElroy, the Lumberjacks posted a team score of 56 points, clinching the win by 13 points Friday afternoon at Collindale Golf Course.
With the win, the Lumberjack men secured an automatic bid into next weekend's NCAA Cross Country Championships at E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky.
"It was perfect," said Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Eric Heins, who earned his first regional victory as NAU's coach Friday. "We went out really slow, so it allowed our top guys to pack up and not really press too hard. Our guys strung it out then finished hard in order to secure a national bid, but didn't go so much that they wore themselves out, which is exactly what you want to do at a regional championship meet."
Zienasellassie came in fourth overall in a time of 30:06.8, followed by Shrader in fifth at 30:09.5. McElroy notched 10th place with a finish of 30:20.0. It was the same trio that crossed the finish line simultaneously at the Big Sky Cross Country Championships two weeks ago in Flagstaff, helping to clinch NAU's record sixth straight conference team title.
The last time the Lumberjack men won the Mountain Region Championship was 2002, when eventual All-American Seth Watkins and three other All-Region honorees clinched the title with 71 points. Its other wins came in 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1976.
NAU senior Rochelle Kanuho also had a career day at the meet, notching her first-career Top 10 finish with ninth place overall (20:49.1) in leading the women to an eighth-place team mark.
"Rochelle got out in good position from the start, and even though she wasn't in the top 10 right away it was her goal to get there," said Heins, who has now coached four NAU female runners to Top 10 marks in his six Mountain Region meets. "She just ran phenomenally. The second half of the race she just kept moving up, and for her to finish her last regional meet with a Top 10 was great for her."
As a result of the performance, Kanuho gives herself an outstanding shot at a bid in the NCAA Championships as an individual. The first four individual competitors to finish that do not qualify for the national meet with their team are granted an auto-bid into the championships. Aside from that, two at-large bids remain up for grabs nationally as well.
At this point, if No. 24 Colorado is granted an at-large bid to NCAAs as a team with its third-place finish, Kanuho would meet that criteria and get in as the No. 4 runner. The U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches' Association (USTFCCCA) will announce the field for the NCAA Cross Country Championships on Sunday.
Kanuho is the 23rd woman in program history to place in the Mountain Region Top 10, and if selected would be the first NAU female to compete in the NCAA Championships since the 2009, when Veronica Pohl competed as an individual and earned her second All-America honor with a 38th-place finish.
On the men's side, Sophomore Caleb Hoover, the only returner from NAU's 2011 regional team, finished in 13th place with a time of 30:25.8, an incredible improvement of 25 spots and 1 minute, 13 seconds from last year. True freshman Nathan Weitz rounded out the scoring for the Lumberjacks with a 24th-place finish (30:50.9).
Kanuho and the top five finishers for the NAU men earned All-Region honors with their Top 25 efforts.
For the women, senior Agnes Laurent was the team's runner-up with a 39th-place finish in 21:37.3. Freshman Melanie Townsend was 56th overall (22:02.6), while sophomore Kylee Kieser stepped it up to finish in 59th (22:03.9).
Kieser shaved 55 seconds and eight places from her 2011 finish in a gutsy performance that moved her up the NAU ranks to take fourth on the team.
"Halfway through the race we had three girls bunched up and one of them had to finish strong to score for us," Heins said. "Kylee did that and helped the team improve upon last year's finish. She came out and ran really well today."
Freshman Rolonda Jumbo recovered after stumbling over a root early on in the race to score in NAU's fifth position with a 62nd-place finish (22:10.6), while Kerri Lenihan (71st-22:21.6) and Lauren Justus (74th-22:30.0) rounded out the competitors for NAU and kept all seven runners in the top half of the race's finishers.
After the eighth-place team mark, the Lumberjack women have finished no worse than eighth place in all but one Mountain Region Championship since its 1982 inception.
The final test for the Lumberjacks before they prepare for the indoor track and field season comes next Saturday. The 2012 NCAA Championships will begin with the women's championship at 10 a.m. Arizona time and conclude with the men's championship at 11:15.