FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – In just six days, the calendar will turn over from August to September, signifying another fall athletic season and the return of Northern Arizona University cross country.
A program built on a legacy of continued success, this year's Lumberjack men and women will hope to lay their own memorable bricks on that foundation, starting with the year's first event: the 36th annual George Kyte Classic on Sept. 3.
"The excitement is off the charts," said Director of Cross Country Eric Heins. "The men are enjoying what they're doing right now, and I don't get a sense that they're anxious about anything. On the women's side, we are hoping that we can pick up where we left off last year and be battling in the top three with the conference again."
The 'Jacks certainly have the tools to create a season for the history books. Futsum Zienasellassie, one of NAU's most decorated distance athletes in recent history, and Nathan Weitz will don the blue and gold for a final season after redshirting in 2015. Cory Glines and Tyler Day will also be back after solid campaigns last year, while redshirt junior Andy Trouard and New Zealand imports Matt Baxter and Geordie Beamish round out the projected and stacked Lumberjack line-up.
"It's really fun right now because all of last year we had four of our male athletes redshirt that we knew could be in the top-five," said Heins. "To plan something like this, go through a whole year without them and actually get them all back for this season is great."
The depth is going to play a critical factor in the success of this men's team, which—before last season—had won eight-straight conference titles. And while Heins is very skilled at curbing expectations and remaining humble when it comes to the NAU distance program, even he can't help but acknowledge just how special this team could be.
"When you look at the number of guys we have that can make the top-seven and make the top-five, I haven't seen that in the last nine years I've been coaching this team," said Heins. "We've obviously had some really good teams and we've had a lot of high profile athletes upfront, but this team from No. 1 to No. 10 is the deepest I've seen."
Experience will be an asset on the women's side as well, as two-time NCAA National Championship participant and 2015 All-Big Sky and All-Mountain Region athlete Melanie Townsend returns for her final cross country season with fellow all-conference runner Paige Gilchrist and teammate Kylie Goo. Sophomores Mikayla Malaspina and Miranda Myers represent the young blood on the team, while transfers Emily Roughan (Auckland University of Technology) and Karina Ernst (Syracuse) add some more veteran balance to the women's roster.
"The strength of the women's team is going to be the upperclassmen with Mel, Paige, Kylie and Karina being in their fourth year of competition," said Heins. "That's a very good strength to have. We're hoping they can be good leaders for the group, stay healthy and get to the end of the year with that competitive fire still going."
The women will look to improve upon a third-place finish at conference championships last year, a race in which they ran well but ended up a little too spaced out as a team headed toward the finish.
The lessons learned from that event coupled with the fact the projected women's line-up has a combined 11 years of collegiate cross country experience will surely aid this year's team in attempting to catch defending conference champ Weber State.
"That's the challenge for our women: to look at what Weber State has been doing and to get up there and run with them like they did a couple years ago," said Heins.
As mentioned above, NAU will host the 36th annual George Kyte Classic on Sept. 3 at Buffalo Park to open the season. The men will race at 1:30 p.m. and the women will follow at 2:30 p.m. Both times are MST.
For a full look at the 2016 schedule, click here.