INDIANAPOLIS – Northern Arizona University's Rochelle Kanuho will have one last hurrah before her final cross country season comes to a close. The senior and Flagstaff native learned of her automatic bid in the 2012 NCAA Division I Women's Cross Country Championships after the NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Track and Field Committee announced Friday night the team and individual qualifiers for next Saturday's championship meet.
"Qualifying for the national championships in any sport is extremely hard, but in cross country I venture to say it is one of the hardest," said Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Eric Heins, who welcomed Kanuho (kuh-NOO-ho) as a walk-on after she graduated in 2008 from Coconino High School. "Rochelle has made a commitment to running over the last few years that has been inspirational to many. This is a great reward for the time that she has invested into making herself truly one of the best cross country runners in the NCAA."
The 2012 NCAA meet, to be held next weekend in Louisville, Ky., will be Kanuho's first national championship event in her five-year career with the Lumberjacks. The announcement comes on the heels of an incredible ninth-place overall finish in a time of 20:49.1 at Friday afternoon's Mountain Region Championships in Ft. Collins, Colo.
"I was pretty nervous before the race as usual but I had been working on a few techniques a few days leading up to the meet to help calm me, and I think that helped a lot," said Kanuho, a parks and recreation management major. "We also met up as a team beforehand to discuss each of our goals, and for me to be able to tell myself and my teammates out loud that I wanted to go to nationals boosted my confidence. It kept me wanting to push harder for that goal, but I also wanted to be smart about it."
Heins attested to the fact that Kanuho, driven by her will to reach the next level, ran a smart race by getting a good start and not peaking too early.
"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 brings an NAU female runner along to the national meet for the first time since All-American Veronica Pohl placed 38th in 2009. "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, and now a bid to the national meet, is great for her."
The Top-10 finish was a career-high for Kanuho. In her two other Mountain Region appearances, she finished 16th (21:30.9) in 2011, her first-career All-Region finish, and 28th (21:31.7) in 2010. Between cross country, indoor, and outdoor track and field, Kanuho has six All-Big Sky Conference awards and two All-Region honors.
"The race felt great! I didn't push myself too hard in the beginning. I was in the back of the front pack and worked my way up through the race and didn't panic," Kanuho said. "The experience was a little different, because it was my first time kind of talking myself through a race and giving myself feedback—I usually just go for it and push myself as hard as I can throughout, but this time I wanted to start out a little more conservative and finish strong."
In order to be eligible to participate in the championships, teams and individuals qualified in their respective NCAA regional competitions. Thirty-one teams were selected to participate in each championship, with the top two, seven-person teams automatically qualifying from each of the nine regions and thirteen additional teams being selected at-large. The Northern Arizona men were able to gain one of the 18 auto-bids by winning Friday's men's race.
Thirty-eight individuals are also selected to participate in each championship through an automatic qualifier and at-large selection process. Only the top four individuals that do not qualify as part of a team earn automatic berths, so despite Kanuho's stellar finish, she still needed Colorado's women to gain an at-large slot in order to move on.
"When I finished I knew immediately that I was the fifth or sixth individual, counting only the top two teams and not including Colorado," she recalled. "Coach Heins and Coach Leah [Rosenfeld] both told me it was a possibility to go if Colorado qualified, but I didn't want to get my hopes up and just told myself I didn't make it. I had run the race I wanted and that was all I could give."
Waiting with bated breath and not expecting the call until Saturday morning, Kanuho was surprised with the news later Friday night while the team was at dinner.
"Coach Heins announced to me and the entire team unexpectedly and I was so happy," Kanuho said. "To be able to finish my senior year at the national meet in an NAU uniform after all the hard work I have put in over the years is the greatest feeling and I feel so blessed."
The University of Louisville will host the Championships, Saturday, November 17, at E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park in Louisville. The women's race will begin at approximately 12:00 p.m. Eastern time, followed by the men's race at approximately 1:15 p.m. Eastern time. A live webcast of the championships will be broadcast from noon to 1:30 p.m. Eastern time, Saturday, November 17, on NCAA.com.