LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Widely considered the biggest Cinderella story in the world of cross country in 2012, the Northern Arizona University men's team stole a podium spot for the eighth time in school history with a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, led by All-American efforts from Brian Shrader, who took 15th in a time of 29:37.7, and Futsum Zienasellassie, who came 31st overall in 29:54.1.
Rochelle Kanuho, the only NAU woman competing at the championships, narrowly missed All-American status with a 46th-place finish, but ran a remarkably solid race as well in her final collegiate cross country event.
The Lumberjack men, ranked No. 18 in national polls for the majority of the season, effectively silenced their critics with the team performance, and reminded the nation to never count them out.
"It's just phenomenal, because all year long this team has been such a great team in every sense of the word, and to see them come through on the day that matters most makes me speechless and just so proud of them," said Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Eric Heins. "Every weekend throughout the season they just got a little bit better, and in the championship race they trusted each other and they ran a perfect race to bring home the trophy."
An NAU athlete has now earned All-American honors in 16 out of the last 18 years, and thanks to Shrader and Zienasellassie, two Lumberjack men have garnered the award at the same meet in four of the last six NCAA Championship races.
The Big Sky and Mountain Region champion Lumberjacks rarely ran a race this season in less-than-perfect perfect form, and Saturday was no different. The men got out to a strong start in an incredibly fast race, putting them in position to make their traditional move forward once the first half of the race had gone by.
"They needed to get out into a good position because of how the course narrowed down relative to other championship courses," said Heins, who has led men's teams to five Top-10 national finishes in his six years at NAU. "These guys knew that if they got boxed in it would be a hard road ahead to move up, but we didn't want to use all our energy early on."
Through the 3,000-meter mark in the 10K race, Shrader and Zienasellassie were sitting comfortably with the first 50 runners, while Matt McElroy, Caleb Hoover, and Nathan Weitz hung not far behind in the next pack of 50.
The team hung tight for the next 2,000 meters, and after riding an eighth-place team mark through 5K the Lumberjacks made their move. NAU picked off team after team as the next four kilometers ticked by, eventually moving into fifth place with 1,000 meters to go.
"With a strong start, the guys had to know that they could move up 25 spots from where they were at 5K, and I think almost to the man they did that," Heins said.
The Lumberjacks put together solid performances in the last half of races all year long, but it was the signature move in season's toughest test that proved fatal for all the teams that outranked them heading in.
"They ran beautifully," Heins added. "Every single one of them passed people coming home the last 600 meters, which is what you need to do to finish strong."
Shrader, a junior, and Zienasellassie, the meet's highest-placing true freshman, both garnered the first All-America honors of their careers Saturday. Hoover, the only Lumberjack who appeared in the 2011 national meet, improved by a full minute and 102 places from last year with a 75th-place finish in a time of 30:31.2.
McElroy, a redshirt sophomore, and Weitz, the second highest-placing true freshman behind his teammate, both notched Top-100 finishes in their first NCAA Championship. McElroy was third on the team in 66th overall (30:29.3), while Weitz rounded out the scorers for NAU in 80th (30:35.0).
Kanuho's race went virtually the same way as the men's—to start out strong, hang back through the race's initial stages, then make a move through the last half of the race. The senior was even able to provide some inspiration for her male teammates, with the women's 6K race being the first of the day.
"It was great for the guys to be able to see what she did," Heins said, who recruited Kanuho as a walk-on out of Coconino High School in Flagstaff in 2008. "She was maybe around 100th at 2K, and had moved up to 75th by 3K, and then up to 56 by 4K. To be able to see her race like that and move up and know that they could do the same thing was great."
It was the first national event of Kanuho's career, and she definitely made the most of it.
"She really got the guys motivated I believe—with this being her first ever national championship and to have her show up and put on her best race of the year on this day, hat's off to her," added Heins. "It's hard to compete as an individual without teammates around you, but she put it together on race day and I'm just so proud of her."
Finishing the race out for the Lumberjacks were Cody Reed and Alejandro Montano, both racing in their first national meet as well. Reed came sixth on the team, posting a solid time of 31:39.8 to take 199th, while Montano notched 214th in a finish of 31:55.8.
Perhaps the most intriguing and exciting aspect of the day for the Lumberjacks, after all the medals and trophies had been handed out, is the recognition that each one of these runners will return next year, prepped and more ready than ever before to continue building the rich tradition of the Northern Arizona cross country program.