FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Eight men and one woman from the Northern Arizona University cross country teams made the trip to Louisville, Ky. Thursday in preparation for Saturday's NCAA Championships at E.P. "Tom" Sawyer State Park. Both the men's team and Rochelle Kanuho earned auto-bids to the championship meets thanks to stellar finishes at last weekend's Mountain Region Championships.
The men's team, riding a No. 10 national ranking heading into the meet, will look to get on the podium (fourth or better) for the first time since 2010, while Kanuho looks to become the first female All-American since Veronica Pohl in 2009.
"These guys are excited, they have everybody coming back next year, so this year is a chance for them to get out there and really see how high they can place," said Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Eric Heins.
The NAU men will field a squad led by standout freshman Futsum Zienasellassie and 2012 transfers Brian Shrader and Matt McElroy. The trio crossed the finish line together at the Big Sky Championships three weeks ago in Flagstaff to recapture the title for NAU., and all placed in the Top 10 a week ago at regionals.
The supporting cast for what Heins calls the deepest team he's seen in his time at NAU is just as foreboding. Sophomore Caleb Hoover, the only repeat from the 2011 14th-place team, and freshman Nathan Weitz both snagged All-Region honors in the Lumberjacks' sixth team win in program history. Hoover won All-Big Sky honors at the conference meet, the first for his career in cross country, as well.
Redshirt freshman Alejandro Montano, running Saturday for the first time since placing 12th at the Big Sky meet, and redshirt sophomore Cody Reed, who scored for NAU at the conference meet in 11th place, round out NAU's top seven. Transfer senior Roman Acosta made the trip as an alternate, ready to step up if needed.
Kanuho travels east as the first NAU woman to perform at the national meet since 2009, when Veronica Pohl earned All-American honors for the second time with a 38th place finish. The redshirt senior was awarded a berth in her first NCAA Championships by finishing as the fourth-highest individual to not qualify for nationals with a team.
The Flagstaff native's ride to the championships has been a long time coming for the former walk-on, and if her work ethic and hard-nosed racing style is any indicator, she'll show up on race day ready to impress one last time.
"This is definitely exciting, going for the first time is my last year, it's definitely exciting," said Kanuho, who graduated from Coconino High School in 2008. "Just to know that all of my hard work over the past few years has paid off is exciting."
The last time a Lumberjack men's team won the Mountain Region title, in 2002, they went on to take seventh at the national meet and place alum Seth Watkins on the All-America team. Interestingly enough, Heins was a graduate assistant for then-head coach Ron Mann and helped coach that team to the high finish.
NAU's men have finished no worse than 10th at a national meet when they have gone in as Mountain Region champions, having taken second in 1988, 8th in 1987, and 10th in 1986. There was no data available for the 1976 national meet, the first year the team took the regional crown. In addition, all four of those teams has had at least one runner earn All-America honors.
The NCAA Championships will be streamed live on NCAA.com from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Mountain time Saturday morning.