FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Breaking records. Winning multiple conference titles. Earning the highest placement at NCAA Championships in school history. All just tip-of-the-iceberg headlines in what was another successful and historic track and field year for the Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks.
A season that started in mid-December at the Hoosier Open in Indiana and ended with Caleb Hoover's final run as a Lumberjack in the men's 3000m steeplechase at NCAA's last Friday, this year was nothing short of a thrilling rollercoaster ride with terrific highs and very little lows.
In total, the Lumberjacks boasted 18 All-Conference performers at Big Sky Indoor Championships and 25 All-Conference performers at outdoor championships, while also sending eight athletes from the men's team to NCAA's in Eugene, Ore. where they finished higher than any other NAU team in program history at No. 23.
The greatest of all team achievements in 2016, though, came in Greeley, Colo., when the Lumberjack men and women both hoisted Big Sky Conference Championship trophies for the second time in three seasons.
For the men, the conference's preseason No. 1 and winners of the last nine Big Sky Conference titles overall, it was business as usual. NAU complimented this year's indoor conference championship with an outdoor one as well, racking up seven individual titles and another gold in the men's 4x100m relay to dominate the rest of the field. In fact, the Lumberjacks recorded 187 points—the fourth-most ever put up at outdoor conference championships—and bested the second-place team by 97.5 points—the largest margin of victory ever at outdoor conference championships.
For the women, however, the story was a little different. Finding themselves in fourth-place and 30 points back of first after day one, the Lumberjacks staged a furious comeback during the second day of competition, tallying 27 points in the final two events of the meet—120 total for the weekend—to outlast second-place and former champ Sacramento State by 24 points. With conference titles from the likes of Melanie Townsend, Jessica Weise, Ashley Taylor, Nicole Fotinos and the 4x400m relay team, the women rebounded from a sixth-place finish at indoor conference to secure their second team championship in the last three outdoor seasons.
"It was really exciting to see the women go from the indoor meet to the outdoor meet and win that title," said Director of Cross Country and Track & Field Eric Heins. "That was the highlight of the year. For the men, they lived up to expectations, which is always a good thing. They didn't crumble under pressure, so to speak, and stepped up when they needed to. I thought it was a very successful year for our program."
The road to Greeley was not an easy one, though, as progression and "getting better every week" seemed to be the team narrative when the indoor season got underway. Athletes such as Futsum Zienasellassie and Adam Keenan sure got the message, as each rode stellar individual seasons to the regional and national meet in 2016.
Zienasellassie lived up to the hype this indoor season: holding the top mile time in the nation at one point (3:56.98@), winning two conference titles at indoor championships (mile, 3000m), securing the meet's Most Valuable Athlete honor for the second-consecutive season, being named the Mountain Region Athlete of the Year, and collecting indoor All-America accolades in the 5000m (4th—13:52.26).
Zienasellassie carried that momentum over into the outdoor season, where he had a record night at the Payton Jordan Invitational. Registering a Big Sky record time of 27:52.70, Zienasellassie met the Olympic Trial Standard and the Olympic Standard on his way to setting the nation's current No. 1 time in 10,000m. Adding a conference title in the 5000m at outdoor championships, Zienasellassie cemented another fantastic season with an All-America finish at NCAA's, this time as the national runner-up in the 10K (29:10.68).
"Futsum ran really well this year, and it has been exciting to see just how consistent he is," said Heins. "Whenever he steps up to race, he's going to be competing for the win. He had a great season in terms of not only competing and racing, but also learning how to get himself ready for the big meets and important races."
Keenan began his NAU career locking up a conference title in the weight throw event at indoor conference championships before transitioning to his bread and butter event—the hammer throw—for the outdoor season. There, Keenan went on to win four of the six meets he competed in, including another conference title at outdoor championships with the largest throw in Big Sky history—a 230-1 (70.14m) bomb that named him the meet's Most Outstanding Athlete.
At regionals, Keenan—who ranked in the top-10 nationally all season—needed only a single throw to land a qualifying spot at nationals, where he finished seventh and became the first thrower in NAU history and only the second in Big Sky history to receive All-America honors.
"It was really when I saw some video and watched him in person that I knew Adam was real good, but he still had a lot more to improve on to be consistent at a better level," said Assistant Coach Nathan Ott. "I had an idea that when I was recruiting him, he could come in and be our school record holder without any issue. I thought the conference record mark was going to be outside of this year, but then he shattered that too. Watching him develop and improve as much as he has this year has been fun."
If you are familiar with the NAU sprints unit, it is a well-known fact that the energy and enthusiasm Associate Head Coach Kenny McDaniel brings to the table is contagious and produces results. This season was no different for the sprints squad, as the men and women relay teams—during both the indoor and outdoor seasons—highlighted another fun year for Coach McDaniel and crew.
Beginning the 2016 indoor campaign, there were some questions marks given the new talent and fresh faces to the program, but they were swiftly answered on the track.
For the men, it was the combination of Christopher Oestmann, James Fisher (200m indoor champ), Michael Lyles and DeShon Norris locking up the 4x4 gold at indoor conference with a time of 3:17.23, while Jasmine Malone, Bria Edwards, Clarissa Maxey and Fotinos turned the trick for the women (3:49.09) to lock up the only indoor title on the women's side.
The outdoor season saw continued success from athletes like Taylor and Fotinos, both of whom won individual conference titles and ran legs on the record-setting 4x400m relay team with a time of 3:41.30 at the Bryan Clay Invitational. That women's 4x4 relay went on to win the conference title, while newcomers Isaiah Kennedy and Kossi Tchenawou busted out onto the scene as well, registering All-Conference recognition in the 100m and running legs on the Big Sky Champion 4x100m relay team.
In fact, that men's 4x1 team—which also included Fisher (200m outdoor champ) and Norris—went onto become only the second such relay team in Big Sky history to earn a bid to the national meet, running a qualifying time of 40.00 at NCAA West Prelims.
"Regarding this year's sprints and hurdle group, I am pleased with the overall development of the entire group," said McDaniel. "From the indoor season to the national championships, the group displayed perseverance and patience. This year, we broke a school record in the women's 4x4 and had the men's 4x1 advance to the NCAA meet. With those accomplishments, it is a testament to the unity and hard work the athletes displayed all season long."
Weise was staple for the Lumberjacks throws unit this season, bouncing back from a second-place finish at indoor conference championships in the women's shot put to win the outdoor title for the second time in her NAU career with a 48-9 (14.86m) throw. It was the third conference gold for Weise overall, as she also nabbed the shot put indoor title in 2013.
The distance crew will say goodbye to Kayla Freeman—the epitome of resilience and toughness—and Hoover. It will be difficult to lose Hoover, considering everything he's contributed to NAU not only this year but throughout his career: a three-time all-conference athlete and two-time Big Sky champ in the steeple, a four-time all-conference athlete and two-time champ in the men's 5K, a three-time All-America athlete and an integral part of 12 total Big Sky Championship teams between indoor, outdoor and cross country. The Joplin, Mo., native further solidified his place in Lumberjack history with notable performances this outdoor campaign, tacking on another conference title and NCAA appearance in the steeplechase for good measure.
Despite the losses the Lumberjacks will experience come next year, optimism still remains. Brooke Andersen and Julia Viberg—both stud throwers for the NAU women—are set to return in 2017 after redshirting this season, while Zienasellassie, Townsend, Keenan, Taylor, Fotinos, Fisher, Kennedy, Tchenawou, Shawn Collins, Cory Glines, Tyler Day, Andy Trouard (NCAA qualifier), Paige Gilchrist, Tiana Hatler-Stefick and many others still have years of eligibility remaining.
The information and statistics above can be dissected and looked over by any which person, and the overall conclusion more times than not would be that this season was a major success for Lumberjack track and field—both from a team and individual standpoint.
However, what it won't tell you is this: as good as the team was this year, bigger and better things look to be coming in 2017.
2016 Indoor All-Conference Performers
Paige Gilchrist (3000m)
Jessica Weise (Shot Put)
Brooke Andersen (Weight Throw)
Women 4x400m Relay Team ***
Isaiah Kennedy (60m)
James Fisher (200m) ***
Futsum Zienasellassie (Mile***, 3000m***)
Andy Trouard (Mile)
Nathan Weitz (3000m, 5000m***)
Cory Glines (5000m)
Matt Baxter (5000m)
JaShawn Combs (60mH)
Shawn Collins (Shot Put) ***
Adam Keenan (Weight Throw) ***
Men's Distance Medley
Men's 4x400m Relay Team ***
2016 NCAA Championship Qualifiers & Results (I)
Futsum Zienasellassie (5000m) – 4th, 13:52.26, All-America
2016 Outdoor All-Conference Performers
Melanie Townsend (10,000m, 5000m***)
Nicole Fotinos (400m) ***
Ashley Taylor (400mH) ***
Jessica Weise (Shot Put) ***
Kylie Goo (1500m)
Women's 4x400m Relay Team ***
Cory Glines (10,000m) ***
Tyler Day (10,000m)
Caleb Hoover (5000m, 3000m steeplechase***)
Tim Cummings (3000m steeplechase)
Shawn Collins (Shot Put) ***
Kossi Tchenawou (100m)
Isaiah Kennedy (100m, 200m)
James Fisher (200m) ***
Andy Trouard (1500m) ***
Futsum Zienasellassie (1500m, 5000m***)
Nathan Weitz (1500m)
Micael Ljungberg (Discus)
Adam Keenan (Hammer Throw)
Men's 4x100m Relay Team ***
Men's 4x400m Relay Team
2016 NCAA West Preliminary Round Qualifiers & Results
Isaiah Kennedy (100m) – 42nd, 10.74
Kossi Tchenawou (100m) – 45th, 10.80; (200m) – 36th, 21.42
James Fisher (200m) – 18th, 20.87
Andy Trouard (1500m) – 5th, 3:43.61
Caleb Hoover (3000m steeplechase) – 7th, 8:44.05; (5000m) – 29th, 14:33.86
Tim Cummings (3000m steeplechase) – 37th, 9:19.53
Nathan Weitz (5000m) – 24th, 14:28.62
Cory Glines (5000m) – 34th, 14:50.02; (10,000m) – 14th, 30:05.15
Futsum Zienasellassie (10,000m) – 2nd, 29:50.77
Tyler Day (10,000m) – 15th, 30:07.16
Matt Baxter (10,000m) – 21st, 30:13.60
Shawn Collins (Shot Put) – 25th, 17.82m
Micael Ljungberg (Discus) – 22nd, 53.79m
Adam Keenan (Hammer) – 2nd, 70.13m
Nicole Fotinos (400m) – 33rd, 55.57
Kylie Goo (1500m) – 35th, 4:30.29
Melanie Townsend (5000m) – 41st, 17:33.51; (10,000m) – 32nd, 36:03.97
Paige Gilchrist (10,000m) – 39th, 36:44.34
Ashley Taylor (400mH) – 40th, 1:01.13
Tiana Hatler Stefick (Hammer) – 46th, 48.66m
Men's 4x100m Relay Team – 11th, 40.00
2016 NCAA Championship Qualifiers & Results (O)
Adam Keenan (Hammer) – 7th, 69.45m, All-America
Andy Trouard (1500m) – 19th, 3:50.42
Caleb Hoover (3000m steeplechase) – 12th, 8:55.58
Futsum Zienasellassie (10,000m) – 2nd, 29:10.68, All-America
Men's 4x100m Relay (Norris, Fisher, Kennedy, Tchenawou) – DNF