FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A huge team victory and the subsequent unanimous No. 1 ranking the country deserves a plethora of recognition, and the Northern Arizona University men's cross country team has received just that.
While the unanimous first-place ranking was the first of its kind at NAU and the Lumberjacks have sat at No. 1 in the nation for three consecutive USTFCCCA national polls, Director of Cross Country Eric Heins is not about to let the accomplishments of last weekend linger into a team-wide drought.
The Lumberjack head coach, in his tenth and final season at NAU, has seen some great XC squads in his day and while he'll admit the depth on the 2016 team might be as good as he's ever seen, it is crucial to keep the mindset as fresh as the legs down the stretch. The ultimate goal, locking up the school's first NCAA National Championship of any kind, is still within their grasps, and Heins is making sure that focus does not waver.
We sat down with the NAU skipper to discuss the Wisconsin race and much more in this week's "Catch Up with Coach Heins" feature.
NAU Athletics Communications: After the recognition from the USTFCCCA & FloTrack this week in their ranking systems along with the victory in Wisconsin, do you believe your men's team is propelling the NAU cross country program to new heights?
Coach Heins: I don't think you can say that. With this program, there has been a number of high-caliber wins. We won the Wisconsin meet back in 2013, and we've also finished second in the country before. I don' think all the recognition this season has propelled the program to new heights because I think we've always been close to the top, and it has been that way for a long time.
If you look at the teams that weren't at Wisconsin last weekend—Oregon, Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma State, etc.— you might say that meet was a little bit less competitive than years previous, so our athletes can't think just because they won that race that they're now automatically going to win a national title. They ran a great race, absolutely, but now it's a matter of training and preparing to run that same style of race in Terre Haute.
AC: Do you think the athletes on the men's team are riding a high wave of confidence here going into the final stretch of the collegiate cross country season?
CH: Yeah, I do. I think they already had a lot of confidence from what they've been doing in practice, and the Wisconsin race validated that for them. It also gave them experience running hard with a lot of other talented runners. The nice thing is, when you're training with Futsum Zienasellassie and Cory Glines and Tyler Day, all of these guys are running with some of the best in the country. I think that gives the rest of the athletes on the team confidence to say, "If he can do it and I run with him in practice, then I can do it too."
AC: How has the visible progression of the team from 2015 to 2016 impressed you so far this year?
CH: The focus for the athletes has been unlike I've ever seen. They're still fun to be around, they're not so intense that they can't have fun, but the focus from the guys and what they're doing to take care of themselves—eating, resting and recovering well—that has been by far the best I've ever seen it here as a coach.
AC: How important is the depth of this men's team, and how it is going to play a factor at NCAA Championships on Nov. 19?
CH: It's going to be huge. Just like a team in the World Series, you can't win it all with just one pitcher; a team has to have depth at pitching. Same with a cross country race: you can't just have one runner; you have to have some depth.
Right now, having eight athletes, I think that's still creating some urgency among the men as they understand they don't know if they're even in the top-seven yet. Even if they ran at Wisconsin, it doesn't guarantee them spot at nationals. All our athletes are going to support one another, but nobody is going to assume they're already racing at NCAA's. Each athlete is going to be doing everything they can to keep themselves in the mix.
AC: Are you of the belief that because your women's team executed its race strategy well at the Wisconsin race and only placed two points behind defending Big Sky Champ Weber State that the NAU women are in prime contention for a conference title in 2016?
CH: Our women are definitely building some confidence off last weekend. Last year, we were extremely happy with the women's season and we barely missed going to the national meet. This year, our No. 1, 2 and 3 runners at Wisconsin all finished higher than last season. We had the makings of a real strong team finish, but our No. 4 and 5 were a little bit short. Having Paige Gilchrist added to the lineup by next weekend will help solidify the depth of the team, and being close to Weber State—who has been the top team in the conference lately—gave our athletes confidence.
However, looking across the Big Sky, the University of Idaho is the favorite going into next weekend with the way they've been running and how tight their pack is. For our women, there are a number of good teams we have to keep an eye out for, and every single team has some good individuals. I want to make sure our women are focused on themselves and what they can do to run their best.