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Elevated Hopes: Lumberjacks look to return to national stage in 2014

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Northern Arizona men's cross country team garnered national attention last fall with their runner-up finish at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and look to build on that success with top-finishers Futsum Zienasellassie and Matt McElroy returning for the 2014 season.

In 2013, the Lumberjacks took home their seventh consecutive Big Sky Championship in men's cross country and McElroy was the eighth consecutive individual champion from NAU. Also earning All-Conference recognition was returner Nathan Weitz.

Following their conference championship, NAU went on to secure a regional championship – their second consecutive – edging out eventual national champion Colorado. After sitting out the Big Sky Championship, Zienasellassie returned to lead the Lumberjacks with a third-place finish. McElroy also finished in ninth for All-Region honors.

At the national meet, Zienasellassie led NAU with a fourth-place finish and earned All-American distinction. McElroy also earned All-American honors with his 28th place finish. Weitz filled the fifth spot for the Lumberjacks with a 76th place finish.

Joining the Lumberjacks is transfer Tyler Byrne from the University of Louisville. Byrne finished 29th at last year's national championships.

The men's side lost Brian Shrader who posted All-Big Sky, All-Region and All-American finishes for NAU. In 2012, he was the Big Sky Cross Country Individual Champion. Another loss was Josh Hardin who posted an All-Big Sky finish at the championships and filled the number four slot at the national championships.

"It's going to be exciting for both teams," said Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Eric Heins. "Our men return a great portion of a Big Sky Championship team and number two team in the country. We want to keep that tradition alive of winning Big Sky Championships and bringing home NCAA trophies."

The Northern Arizona women were edged out at the Big Sky Championships by defending champion Weber State. They finished sixth at the Mountain Regional.

Leading the way at both the conference and regional championships was Rolonda Jumbo, who earned All-Conference and All-Region honors as well as a berth to the national championships. On the national stage, Jumbo finished 195th.

Including Jumbo, the Lumberjack women return four of their five scorers from the Big Sky Championships. Sophomores Carolyn Bethel and Paige Gilchrist along with senior Kelly Fruth return for 2014 and finished inside the top-20 at the Big Sky Championships. Gilchrist, Bethel and Fruth were also in the top-half of competitors at the Mountain Regional.

Melanie Townsend will also return on the women's side after sitting out much of 2013 to injury.

"Our women's team was very young last year," said Heins. "The younger girls got a lot of experience last year and we're hoping – well, we believe – that they can contend for a conference championship and for a spot at the national championships."

Heins returns as the reigning Big Sky Cross Country Coach of the Year. Last year was Heins' seventh consecutive honor, the most consecutively won by any Big Sky coach. He went on to lead the Lumberjacks to Big Sky Championships in both men's and women's indoor and outdoor track and field and was COY for both indoor and outdoor track and field.

NAU Cross Country opens their 2014 campaign on Sept. 6 when they host the George Kyte Classic at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff, Ariz.

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