FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Nearly two weeks ago, the Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona hustled their way to the university's first-ever NCAA Division I National Championship on the backs of four All-American performances—a race-best that tied a school record—and seven top-100 finishes—the only such team to do so.
To define the championship run for the 2016 NAU team as "improbable" or to classify them as "underdogs" would be an undersell of the program. After all, the Lumberjacks spent the final eight weeks of the cross country season as the No. 1 team in the nation, remaining as such unanimously from Oct. 18 on.
However, one would be remiss if he or she did not acknowledge the certain difficulties an institution like NAU faces compared to the big guns of the NCAA cross country world, such as Oregon, Stanford and Colorado—all of whom have at least four team championships in school history and have won at least two since the turn of the century.
For the Lumberjacks, securing the program and university's first NCAA title was not going to be an easy task—as the last 25 NCAA appearances for the Lumberjacks has shown. In fact, before Nov. 19 of this year, only seven other Division I universities in the entire NCAA have made more appearances at nationals without winning a team title than the men from the Mountain town.
That means this 2016 group was going to have to catch some breaks and be opportunistic –maybe more so than any team in Terre Haute, Ind.—if they hoped to bring a championship back to the city of Flagstaff. As many will attest, carrying the target on your back as the No. 1 team with a high expectation to win the entire thing when the school has never done so is enough pressure to overwhelm even the most unwavering of teams.
But, unlike those that fold under pressure, this team wasn't led by just some coach; it was former NAU Director of Cross Country Eric Heins at the helm, coaching his last race as the Lumberjacks' leading man. Heins consistently referenced the mantra of fellow 2016 championship coach Joe Maddon to embrace that struggle, to accept all that comes with being ranked No. 1, and to run with it…literally.
That is what the Lumberjacks did. That is what NAU's first four-time NCAA XC All-American Futsum Zienasellassie did; that is what first-time XC All-Americans and next season returnees Matt Baxter, Tyler Day and Andy Trouard did; that is what Cory Glines, rallying from dead-last to finish 84th, did; and that is what six man Nathan Weitz and seven man Geordie Beamish, both of whom finished low enough for NAU to win the championship if Glines remained down, did.
What it came down to was heart and hustle: the aura that surrounded this team all season long allowed for each member, even those that did not compete at nationals, to create an atmosphere of belief in the ultimate goal. In turn, that untiring faith in one another manifested itself into the success and NCAA victory we saw in Indiana 13 days ago.
Call the Lumberjacks what you will: amazing, exciting, fantastic, unlikely, passionate, etc. Just make sure not to forget "the best."