TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – A plan over a year in the making will come to a head in Indiana on Saturday as Northern Arizona University Director of Cross Country Eric Heins and his No. 1 Lumberjack men invade the LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course for NCAA National Championships.
Heins—who strategically made the move to redshirt Futsum Zienasellassie, Andy Trouard and Nathan Weitz before the 2015 XC season—knew this team was going to be real good and have a chance to accomplish something special. This Saturday, the stacked NAU men have the opportunity to win the school's first national title and forever etch their names into Lumberjack history.
"The men have really run above my expectations," said Heins. "Coming into this season we had some unknowns like Matt Baxter, who we saw run on the track but we hadn't had him for cross country yet. He has run really well, as has Tyler Day and Cory Glines. Both of those athletes got great experience last season, and they stepped up real big for us this year. It was above my expectations to see them run so well throughout the season."
As one could probably expect, there is going to be some stingy and tough competition at the national race this weekend, as the nation's No. 2 (Colorado), No. 3 (Stanford), No. 4 (BYU) and No. 5 (Syracuse) teams all boast championship-caliber talent. In fact, the Buffaloes and the Orange have accounted for the last three NCAA titles.
If there is a silver lining, though, giving the Lumberjacks a little extra confidence heading into Saturday, it's that they have competed against each of the teams listed above at least once this season and bested them all. In the cases of Colorado and BYU, NAU just recently beat both at NCAA Mountain Region Championships last Friday.
Not that they will take solace in those performances or expect them to dictate how the race will be run this weekend, but with six team victories in 2016—including two consecutive ones at Big Sky Championships and Mountain Regionals—the nation's unanimous No. 1 squad is hitting their stride at exactly the right time.
"I think our men definitely have confidence from going against other top universities and competing so well," said Heins, "but now, it comes down to them not being overly confident. They still understand this is a very wide-open race this weekend. We've seen a lot of those teams already and we've gone undefeated throughout the year, but our men know this is one day people are really fired up for. They expect the best out of their competitors, and we want to give it our best as well."
The Lumberjack lineup will consist of the athletes mentioned above—Zienasellassie, Trouard, Weitz, Baxter, Day and Glines—as well as redshirt-freshman Geordie Beamish.
Experience will be a strength for some of the other competing rosters, and NAU's lineup is certainly no stranger to the big stage or the venue itself, either. Earlier this season, the men won the Sycamore Invitational on the exact same course with Baxter walking away as the event's individual victor. Additionally, Zienasellassie, Trouard, Weitz and Glines combine for eight seasons of experience competing at the national meet.
In order to be successful this Saturday, though, Heins says it comes down to the men running well and being good, not great. Meaning, the Lumberjacks should not be trying too hard or stressing themselves out too much; all they have to do is stay within themselves and compete the way they have all season.
"We have to run to the best of our ability, and I expect everyone else to do that as well; this is the National Championship," said Heins. "For us, we need to worry about ourselves and where we're at throughout the race. If it's a slow race, they need to make sure they're up in the front like they were at Wisconsin so they can be ready to make moves over the last 2K."
Currently, the weather report for Terre Haute on Saturday reads as a high of 45, low of 23. No rain in the forecast, but there will be some clouds and wind in the area (per AccuWeather). The wind could play a factor in the pace and how the field runs, but the Lumberjacks have prepared themselves for a race, this race, all season long.
Coaching and leading this group of men has been Heins—the mastermind behind this entire plan. He understands what it takes to be a championship team and knows that in his final race as the NAU head coach, he has all the confidence in the world that these men can get the job done.
"I'm really excited," said Heins. "There are always nerves that come with it, but I don't think I'll feel those much until Friday night or Saturday. I'm more excited than anything, though. Just to come here to this meet being my last year with this group of men and this staff…I couldn't have asked for anything better than that."