FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – In 2015, the Lumberjack men came in second place at the Big Sky Conference Championships, breaking an eight-year team title streak and a 10-year individual athlete championship streak.
If there were ever a textbook definition of a rebound year, it would be 2016 as the Northern Arizona University men's cross country team garnered the conference's preseason top-spot coming into the season and currently ranks No. 1 in the country unanimously.
With NCAA Mountain Regionals just two weeks away and NCAA Championships the weekend after, NAU's journey toward securing its first national title in any sport in the university's history is finally starting to take shape. It all begins on the University of Idaho Golf Course tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. MT for their 8K championship race, where they will look to make that preseason prediction a reality.
"The men are geared up and ready to run," said Director of Cross Country Eric Heins. "This race is a step in the process they need to take seriously, and I believe they are. Our men know how to have fun and they joke around, but at the same time they know what their expectations are and what they need to do this weekend."
Coming off his first race of the 2016 season in Wisconsin a couple weeks ago, three-time NCAA XC All-American and two-time All-Conference athlete Futsum Zienasellassie will lead NAU tomorrow toward, hopefully, their ninth conference championship in the last ten seasons. Last time Zienasellassie ran a Big Sky race was in 2014, where he secured the overall individual title to go along with the first-place team trophy.
Joining him will be Matt Baxter—who has finished in the top-10 at every competitive race this season, including a first-place mark at the Sycamore Invitational in September—Cory Glines, Tyler Day, Geordie Beamish, Andy Trouard, Peter Lomong and Nathan Weitz.
"Part of this whole year is them learning how to run with a target on their back," said Heins. "To steal a line from Joe Maddon, we have to 'embrace the target' and our men going into this stretch run here understand they are the unanimous No. 1 team and when November 19 comes, they need to be ready to perform on that stage."
Not to be overlooked, the Lumberjack women are just as excited for their 5K championship race tomorrow at 12:15 p.m. MT, as the team is finally starting to get healthy. Adding Paige Gilchrist back to the Lumberjack lineup will be huge for the women, as they now have a strong fourth stick to join the top-three of Melanie Townsend, Kylie Goo and Mikayla Malaspina.
As the preseason No. 2 team, the NAU women are not going unnoticed this weekend, but they certainly can make a splash and surprise some people if they were to win their second Big Sky XC Championship in the last three seasons.
"I think our women have gained some confidence over the last few weekends," said Heins. "Individually, our women have learned some things they need to work on, and they've applied that to their racing. I do believe the team, no matter where they finish, is ready to run their best race of the year."
As referenced above, the men's race will get underway first at 11 a.m. and the women will follow at 12:15. Both start times are MT. After experiencing rain every day for over a week, Moscow, Idaho's forecast is reading partly cloudy with no percentage chance of rain during tomorrow's competitions (per AccuWeather).
Lucky for you, Lumberjack fans, the University of Idaho will be live streaming both races tomorrow through the Facebook live feature. In order to watch the 'Jacks in real time from the 2016 Big Sky Championships, click here.