By Matthew Sewell, NAU Media Relations
When the Northern Arizona University men's cross country team lost five seniors, including two All-Americans in Diego Estrada and Jordan Chipangama, from the 2011 squad that placed 14th at the NCAA Championships, the general consensus was that 2012 would be somewhat of a rebuilding year.
Little did the Lumberjack faithful know that the 2012 cross country campaign would end up as anything but a rebuilding year.
Instead, this season NAU has reloaded.
With the departure of those five seniors at the close of 2011, the Lumberjack men's squad was down to a skeleton crew of young athletes. Sophomores Caleb Hoover and Chris Ganem were the only ones that would return with postseason experience—junior Tim Freriks planned to redshirt in 2012—and none of the three other returners sported upperclassmen status.
Still, the tradition and history of success within the NAU cross country program brought the familiar buzz of excitement as soon as National Signing Day hit. Come 2012, the Lumberjacks announced that they would add two of the nation's best prospects in the world of cross country.
"My mindset going into the year was a pretty excited one, because we had two of the top high schoolers in the country coming in," said Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Eric Heins. "To have them along with the hardworking group of sophomores, I was already excited about what the group could accomplish."
The excitement would only build, as NAU would end up adding three key transfers into the mix with Zienasellassie, Weitz, and NAU's young returners before it was all said and done.
One by one throughout the spring and summer, the Lumberjacks saw Matt McElroy (Oklahoma State), Roman Acosta (Syracuse), and Flagstaff-native Brian Shrader (Oregon) change gears in their collegiate journey and commit to NAU, and with their new-look team, the Lumberjacks have been flying higher than expected all season.
From the season-opening George Kyte Classic to last weekend's Mountain Region Championships, the NAU men have compiled four team wins in the five events that their 'A' squad has taken the course. Shrader captured individual titles in three of those races as well.
The most remarkable aspect of the team's success is the cohesion that has been built in such a short time.
"That's all on the returners from last year, because us as transfers coming in we had no say in that really, and them welcoming us with open arms is what started that great team chemistry from the very beginning," said Shrader, who spent two years competing for the Ducks before deciding to return home to northern Arizona. "They've all been super supportive, and they never even really bring up that we're transfers. It's as if we've been here all along."
The start of the season proved crucial for the team in building a bond that would last throughout the season, and with so many new faces in the crowd, it was something Heins and the returning athletes recognized as well.
"The first week we had a lot of team building activities, which really helped me get to know my team," said Acosta, who received his undergraduate degree in four years at Syracuse before coming to NAU in his final year of eligibility as a graduate student. "My favorite one of those was our team camping trip we took to Blue Ridge Reservoir. We had a lot of fun, but there were more serious moments where we just sat around the campfire and went over our goals so everyone could hold each other accountable, and right there we just talked about what we're here to do."
Shrader recalled the camping trip as vital to the team's motivation as well.
"Looking back at that camping trip, it's funny, I remember the goals that we were talking about, and even though winning the Mountain Region was a surprise to a lot of the country, really it's exactly what we were talking about on that team camping trip," he said.
Spending time together as a team all season in a sport that relies on team unity and cohesiveness has allowed the NAU men to accomplish those goals and form great friendships in the process.
"Hanging out after practice was probably the biggest way we got to know each other and build that bond, and the team is definitely like a family," said McElroy, who competed two years for Oklahoma State prior to his time in Flagstaff. It's not just in practice that we hang out—we all go to dinner every night together, so it's just come over time."
That team bond will be put to the ultimate test Saturday, as the No. 10 Lumberjack men, along with Rochelle Kanuho on the women's side, compete against the nation's best at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Louisville, Ky.
"We had thought maybe one more recruiting class was what we needed to get ourselves back into the top 10," Heins said, speaking about his team's prospects last spring prior to the three transfer commitments. "But now all of a sudden it looks like the guys have the potential to do that and more."
The women's race begins at 10 a.m. Arizona time, with the men following at 11:15. Both races will be broadcast live on NCAA.com.
"We've been talking about this for such a long time, and now finally all those pieces are coming together and those goals are becoming a reality," Shrader said.