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Cross Country Season Recap - The Best Has Yet to Come

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Northern Arizona University's cross country program had a very successful fall season. The season was capped by the NAU women showing a dramatic improvement from the 2012 season as well as having a runner compete at the national meet and the NAU men finishing the season as national runner-up.

The Lumberjack women were a young but talented group of young ladies whose potential was evident from day one. The team opened up the season as it hosted the George Kyte Classic at Buffalo Park. NAU finished second as a team behind then No. 7 Arizona led by a third place finish by sophomore Melanie Townsend.

Although the women did not finish first there was much to be optimistic about in regards to this team's capabilities as its top-three finishers Townsend, sophomore Rolonda Jumbo and freshman Paige Gilchrist finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively, with just an eight second spread between the trio. Rounding out the top-five were freshmen Carolyn Bethel and Vanessa Estrada who finished 10th and 14th, respectively. With NAU's top-five being composed of underclassmen the future looks bright for the young team. 

The NAU women's improvement was made apparent at the NCAA Pre-Nationals. The Lumberjacks finished third as a team led by another strong performance by Townsend. The third place finish was a 35-place improvement from last season's 38th place team finish in Terre Haute. This would be the last we would see of Townsend as she was sidelined for the remainder of the season due to injury.

The young group showed great poise as they banded together to make the necessary adjustments in order to continue having a strong season. NAU was led by committee but leaned on the experience and leadership of juniors Kelly Fruth, Jamie Shrader, Kylee Kieser and Shayla Freeman to keep the team on track. Assistant coach Leah Rosenfeld's group went on to finish second in the Big Sky as they were edged out by Weber State and sixth in the Mountain Region both of which were improvements from the previous season.

Although the dream of having the NAU women's team qualify for the national meet was not actualized, Jumbo was selected to compete as an individual after an All-Region performance at the Mountain Regional Championships. This was a first for the sophomore and a great step in the right direction for the women's team as a whole.

The Lumberjack women garnered two Big Sky Athletes of the Week, both awarded to Townsend, as well as one All-Big Sky honor awarded to Jumbo.

The NAU men's cross country season was nothing short of stellar. Returning its entire roster from last season's fourth place podium team, the Lumberjacks were expected to be a force in the cross country world and they did not disappoint. With arguably the best trio in the country in sophomore Futsum Zienasellassie, senior Brian Shrader and junior Matt McElroy, the team was considered a national title contender throughout the entire season.

The Lumberjack men made their presence felt early as they were dominant at the George Kyte Classic to open up the season. Led by McElroy's first place finish and course record, the team ran away with the meet as six of the top-10 finishers were from NAU. 

Ranked within the top-three for the entire season, NAU was a well-respected team. The Lumberjacks solidified their belonging at the top with a second place finish at the Cowboy Jamboree. NAU travelled a partial team as it held out both McElroy and sophomore Korey Krotzer but was still able to come away with a second-place finish falling only to then No. 1 Oklahoma State. 

Director of track & field and cross country Eric Heins travelled his top-seven for the first time all season on October 19th as the team competed at the Adidas Invitational in Wisconsin to prepare for the championship portion of the season. NAU came away with a first place finish led by strong performances from Zienasellassie (6th), McElroy (16th) and Shrader (17th) as well as solid performances from sophomore Nathan Weitz (39th) and freshman Andy Trouard (43rd). 

Championship season began with a trip to Bozeman, Mont., to compete at the Big Sky Championships. The NAU men went into the meet winning the past six conference championships. Led by McElroy's individual championship, the team was able to come away with a seventh consecutive Big Sky championship. Behind McElroy were Shrader (2nd), Weitz (3rd) and senior Josh Hardin (7th) all of whom garnered All-Big Sky honors. The championship catapulted Heins' seventh consecutive Big Sky Coach of the Year Award as well. 

NAU then travelled to Ogden, Utah to compete at the Mountain Regional Championships where they would face off against a number of ranked opponents, most notably No. 1 Colorado. Led by Zienasellassie's third place finish, the team was able to upset Colorado. The Lumberjacks had four athletes garner All-Region honors in Zienasellassie, McElroy, Hardin and Shrader. The victory helped Heins to another Mountain Region Coach of the Year Award and the team to a No. 1 ranking for the first time all season.

Terre Haute, Ind., was where all eyes were glued on Nov. 23rd as the cross country national championships took place. The conditions were brutal with high winds, cold weather and a muddy course. NAU was up to the challenge as the group led for the majority of the 10K race. Led by a breakout All-American performance by Zienasellassie (4th), the Lumberjacks were in heavy contention for a national championship. NAU finished second at the national championships as they were edged out by the Buffaloes of Colorado.

McElroy and Shrader both contributed All-American performances as they finished 25th and 28th, respectively. Rounding out the group for NAU was Hardin (75th), Weitz (76th), junior Caleb Hoover (139th) and Trouard (200th). The second place finish was the highest for the team since 1995.

NAU cross country had a great 2013 season on both the men's and women's side. The NAU women are a young and tenacious group that will only continue to get better. The NAU men will miss seniors Shrader and Hardin but have a great nucleus returning. It will be very exciting to see what NAU cross country has in store next season.

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