FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – We have turned the calendar and it is now 2017, signifying another year of resolutions, opportunities and a new NAU track & field indoor season. The Lumberjacks host the first of four indoor meets beginning this Friday, January 13, with Friday Night Duels from the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome.
It certainly was a memorable 2016 indoor campaign for the 'Jacks, especially on the men's side, winning their fifth-straight Big Sky Indoor Championship and securing seven individual conference titles. Former NAU distance stud Futsum Zienasellassie followed up his "Big Sky Most Valuable Athlete" performance with an All-American one at NCAA's, placing 4th-place in the 5000m national event.
To their credit, though, the women's squad rebounded during the outdoor season—recording seven All-Big Sky performances to win their second outdoor conference championship in the last three seasons. Led by first-place victories from Nicole Fotinos, Ashley Taylor, Melanie Townsend, Jessica Weise and the women's 4x400m relay team, the Lumberjacks rallied from a 30 point deficit after day one to nab the program's ninth outdoor conference title and 20th Big Sky Championship overall.
Of the 21 athletes NAU sent to NCAA West Preliminaries in 2016, 14 return for the indoor season and 16 return for the outdoor season—five of whom were NCAA Outdoor Championship competitors. Let's take a deeper look at what athletes each unit—distance, jumps, sprints and throws—has coming back in 2017.
Key Departures: Kayla Freeman, Futsum Zienasellassie
Northern Arizona is well-renowned for its distance program, and the talent the Lumberjacks bring into the track and field season in 2017 has the potential to further support that claim…and then some.
Baxter, Day and Trouard are most recently coming off of All-American performances during their run at the school's first NCAA National Championship in November, while Glines—last season's 10K conference champ—was NAU's all-important fifth man at that race. All four competed at NCAA West Prelims in 2016, while Trouard advanced to NCAA Championships in the 1500m.
Townsend (indoor), Gilchrist and Goo return to the Lumberjack lineup as well, with all three contributing during 2016's outdoor conference championship and the most recent Big Sky Women's Cross Country Championship.
The biggest loss this season will be felt in the form of Zienasellassie, one of the greatest distance athletes ever in NAU history. Last track season, the conference record holder in the 10K event and six-time All-American became the first Big Sky athlete since 2011 to win indoor gold in two events back-to-back years. Subsequently, he was named the conference's "Most Valuable Athlete" for the second-consecutive season—accounting for 20 points. Zienasellassie went onto win another 5K title at Big Sky Outdoors and compete at NCAA Championships before eventually running at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Key Departures: Alexis Clay
With Deante Kemper sidelined for the entire 2016 season, both Odol and Kisiel had to step up in big ways for the Lumberjack jumps unit. Their progression last season has made them battle-tested and ready to contribute in big ways this year at conference championships.
Clay was lost to graduation, and her contribution of points at Big Sky Outdoor Championships was crucial in mounting the women's comeback and winning the conference title.
Coach Roderick Townsend—fresh off his two gold medal performance at the Rio Paralympics in August—hit the recruiting trail hard to begin his second season at NAU, signing six new athletes including transfers Bosley and McPherson.
A high jumper at Glendale Community College in 2016, Bosley placed sixth at the Junior College National Championships and earned All-American honors. Not to be outdone, McPherson had a phenomenal undergraduate career at New Mexico Highlands, becoming a two-time DII National Champion in the long jump and receiving All-American accolades seven times in her four years at NMHU.
Key Departures: JaShawn Combs, Bria Edwards, DeShon Norris
Under Coach Kenny McDaniel's leadership, the NAU sprints unit has come on strong in the past couple of seasons and that level of excellence was no more present than in his relay groups last year. The Lumberjack men and women 4x400m relay teams combined to win three of a possible four conference titles during the indoor and outdoor seasons, while the men's 4x100m relay team became the first in NAU history and only the second in conference history to compete at NCAA Championships.
Fisher—a vital member of both the 4x1 and 4x4—laces them up again in 2017 for the 'Jacks. The native of Arlington, Texas, looks to become the first Big Sky athlete to ever three-peat in the indoor 200m event this season.
The dynamic duo of Malone and Maxey—both conference champions as members of a relay team—are poised to also make strides in their respective individual events this season, while veterans Fotinos and Taylor look to follow up 2016 NCAA West Prelim appearances with an even better sprints campaign this time around.
The Lumberjacks, however, do lose Norris (the first leg of the NCAA Championship 4x1 team in 2016) and Edwards. Both leave big voids to fill.
Key Departures: Micael Ljungberg, Kadie McNamara, Jessica Weise
With the exception of Hatler-Stefick, every key returnee for the throws group has at least one conference title under their belts. To her credit, though, Hatler-Stefick was an NCAA West Prelim qualifier last season, making NAU throws arguably the strongest unit in 2017 as far as depth and talent goes.
Before redshirting in 2016, Viberg was the defending three-time Big Sky Champ in the discus event. Collins, who only has eligibility for outdoor, claimed conference gold in the shot put event at both indoor and outdoor championships last season. United States Olympic Trials competitor Andersen returns to full form for NAU in 2017 after redshirting last year's outdoor campaign, while NCAA All-American Keenan—the Big Sky record holder in the hammer throw event at 230-1 (70.14m), which ranked eighth nationally in 2016—will look to further cement his place into NAU history with even greater aspirations this season.
The Lumberjack lose McNamara and Weise, though, on the women's side, while Ljungberg will be absent on the men's end. Weise was the conference outdoor champion and conference indoor runner-up in the shot put last year, while McNamara scored vital points in the discus at Big Sky's to help ensure the victory for the women. Ljungberg's absence will be noticeable as well, as he was a three-time Big Sky Champion in the discus event during his career.
Friday Night Duels
As mentioned above, the indoor season will begin with Friday Night Duels this week at the Skydome. Field events get underway with the women's long jump and men's shot put at 3 p.m., while track events are slated to start with the women's mile run at 5 p.m. All times are MT.