FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Northern Arizona University Director of Cross Country Eric Heins is no stranger to success. In his 10 years as a Lumberjack coach, he has won 26 Big Sky Conference titles, been named the conference's Coach of the Year 25 times, guided five men's cross country teams to top-five finishes at NCAA Championships, and has coached a total of 30 NCAA All-America athletes, four of whom became Olympic athletes.
So when we sat down with him for this week's "Catch Up with Coach Heins" segment, we weren't too surprised to hear his philosophies and training strategies for both the men's and women's team in lieu of the long layoff between races.
The Lumberjack men garnering the country's No. 1 ranking for a second-consecutive week and getting the women into some early competitive races to prepare them for a tough Big Sky Conference Championships were just some of the topics we discussed with NAU's head coach.
ATHLETICS COMMUNICATIONS: For the second straight week, the men's team has been ranked No. 1 in the country in the USTFCCCA National Poll; in the program's storied history never has that been accomplished. Can you explain what that means to you as a coach, as well as the program itself, to be recognized with such high praise?
COACH HEINS: Right now, it's kind of like a preseason ranking, so it's a great honor from the fellow coaches that put this poll out. The biggest thing is that it's a nice recognition and a great opportunity for Coach Mike Smith and Graduate Assistant Coach Jarred Cornfield to hit the recruiting trail hard right now and really publicize that.
AC: Is this ranking and recognition going to have a good impact on recruiting?
CH: Without a doubt. The recognition is huge. Now, it's a matter of our athletes getting out there and backing up that ranking over the next four to five weeks.
AC: FloTrack came out Tuesday with an early season NCAA National Title Contenders list with one journalist picking the men's team to place second and the other to place first. Do you put any extra effort in as a coach to make sure the athletes don't let things like that get to their head?
CH: It's funny because we haven't really talked about it too much. I think I brought it up one time just to reiterate the fact that we haven't really done anything yet. This is all based on last year's track season and the fact [FloTrack's] Meg Bellino was out here to watch some of their workouts. She got a first-hand glance of what these guys are capable of.
The men are great, they're grounded and they're excited about it. At the same time, I don't think it's causing any extra angst or nervousness on their end that they have to live up to these expectations. I mean, that's part of the reason all of them came here: they wanted a shot at a national title. The rankings are just part it; if you're going to be one of those teams in the top-10, you're going to have a chance to win at NCAA's.
AC: What has the point of emphasis been during practice this week; what is your team focusing on in order to get better each day?
CH: The way we designed the training this year was to get the men out to Indiana to race on the championship course and have a couple early season meets so they could remember what it felt like to put the uniform on and go through the motions of racing and competing.
We did that so we would have a five-week block to where we could really focus on preparing for a 10K later in the year. When you're racing a lot, then you've got to worry about the guys being fresh for those races. The way we looked at it, we wanted five weeks to really focus on their over-distance and certain workouts that are going to prepare them for a 10K. Now that we're getting closer to Wisconsin, we can add a little bit of the speed workouts so they're more prepared to get into a race with 250-300 athletes.
Comparing some of the workouts we've done in the past to what we're doing this year, I think it has worked out really, really well. The men are fit and they've taken some time to get healthy. Inevitably, when you go from summer training to team training in the fall, that's when you see a spike in injuries. It's just typical stuff, but it's enough to bother the guys. But with us not racing, it's not like we're really pushing them to run on a sore leg or what have you, so it has allowed everybody to get on the same page health-wise.
AC: I'm sure both teams are itching to get back to competition soon. What's their anticipation levels like and how amped up are they to race in competition again?
CH: Honestly, it has been a real fun group. They know how to have fun when there are easy days and they're supposed to be recovering. However, when it comes time to workout hard, they lace 'em up and they're ready to go. The excitement is there, there is definitely a certain energy, but it's not overwhelming to the point where our guys are trying to fire each other up every day. They know when it comes time to practice, this is what they've got to do.
The anticipation is there, but the other part of that is traveling from Flagstaff. It can be hard, so if you're trying to travel every two weeks, it can weigh on you especially with classes. Now, we've gotten to the point where we only have to make four trips, and I think that will also keep them fresh for November 19th [NCAA Championships].
AC: The women, unlike the men, have suffered injuries to some key runners. Despite those ailments, Kylie Goo and Mikayla Malaspina have been solid for you so far this season and Melanie Townsend made her 2016 debut last time out. How have you tried to manage this team in the face of adversity and injuries?
CH: We had to go to Minnesota. For the women, it was different because they have to get into some competitions to see what they're made of. I thinking going to Minnesota and finishing where they did, it kind of opened their eyes to see where they're at right now. We didn't have too many athletes run outside where we predicted them to run…and for the most part, they're coming to practice and they're doing their best to get their fitness up to where they can be competing with the top teams in the Big Sky Conference come championship time.