FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The wait is over.
After more than a month off from competition, during which they garnered and currently own the No. 1 ranking in the nation for a school-record three week span, the Northern Arizona University men's cross country team is eager to lace them up and compete this Friday at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational.
"This will be our initial test to see how our team compares to some other nationally-ranked teams," said Director of Cross Country Eric Heins. "When you look at our group and how we've been training, I really feel confident about the depth of our team. We have eight runners and any one of those eight can be in our top-seven that we have to start on Friday."
This is a national meet filled with anticipation as well as a plethora of high-caliber competition. In fact, the No. 1 Lumberjack men will be matched up against 10 other top-20 teams at this race, underlying the importance and excitement of such an event. A good finish here bolsters a team's confidence heading into conference championships, regionals and nationals—all of which take place in three of the next six weekends.
Fresh off a first place finish at the Mesa Thunderbird Classic last Saturday, the NAU women will join their male counterparts for the weekend festivities in Wisconsin, hoping to build on their previous performance and generate some momentum of their own before Big Sky Conference Championships on Friday, Oct. 28.
"We want our athletes to control their attitudes and their effort," said Heins. "Meaning, when you have 250 to 300 of the best runners in the country all on the start line, you have to run the race a certain way in order to be successful."
No strangers to success on the Thomas Zimmer Championship Course, the Lumberjack men won this event three seasons ago in 2013 behind stellar individual performances from former 'Jacks Matt McElroy and Brian Shrader and current NAU athletes Nathan Weitz and All-American Futsum Zienasellassie. Zienasellassie will make his 2016 cross country debut on Friday, looking for a similar if not better finish compared to the last time he competed in the Badger State—a runner-up performance in the 2014 version of this race.
"I'm happy where our depth is at, and hopefully that'll come through for a strong team showing," said Heins. "The difference will be is if we can have more low sticks. [Zienasellassie] has been our No. 1 runner for the last few years and always gives us a low number. The biggest question we have to answer is, 'Do we have any more of those athletes that can finish in the teens or single digits?'"
Two-time NCAA competitor and redshirt-senior Melanie Townsend leads the women up north this weekend as the Lumberjacks try to follow up a 21st-place finish in this event in 2015. Also representing the NAU blue and gold on the women's side will be Kylie Goo, Emily Roughan, Miranda Myers and Mikayla Malaspina.
"We would like to see our women control their emotions so if the race gets tough, we don't throw in the towel," said Heins. "We want them to be able to run through those tough points in the race. It's important for them to not get overwhelmed by who they're running against, and to internalize how they're responding to the challenges of the race course."
The 2016 Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational presented by Under Armor is scheduled to get underway at 11 a.m. CT. The NCAA Division I collegiate women will race first this year in a 6K loop on the aforementioned Thomas Zimmer Championship Course at 12:30 p.m. CT. The men will follow with their 8K race at 1:20 p.m. CT.
"Our No. 1 goal is to get out to the front of that large pack to where we can actually see the leaders and have a little bit of freedom and ability to move around," said Heins. "The other goal is running hard to the finish. We can't control what the other teams we're competing against will do, but we can control our effort, our attitude and how hard we run the race."