MADISON, Wis. – How do you celebrate a spectacular team victory at one of the nation's most touted cross country races of the year? Apparently when you're in Wisconsin, you do so with cheese.
The No. 1 Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks stepped up to the challenge in what was the squad's first true test of the 2016 season, living up to their ranking with a first place finish at the 2016 Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational Friday afternoon.
In total, the Lumberjacks—competing against the likes of 18 other top-30 teams—mustered 78 points compared to second-place Stanford's 118 and third-place BYU's 144.
"All seven of our athletes were in the upper quarter of the race and as the pace started to pick up, I felt like our men were able to handle it," said Director of Cross Country Eric Heins. "Coming in, I would think our athletes had a lot of expectations on them from back home, and there's a lot of pressure when you come into a race like this with that 'No. 1' on your back. I was really pleased with how they handled that."
"In terms of making a statement, I think there were so many publications that didn't know what we were about because honestly, we hadn't raced yet. It was great for the men to show up today and show where we're at."
From the get-go, it was clear Heins' crew wanted to set the tone and maneuver their way into the lead pack among the field of 30 teams and 207 athletes. Never truly wavering, each scoring Lumberjack placed within the top-31 runners, including top-10 performances from Matt Baxter and three-time XC All-American Futsum Zienasellassie.
The low stick for the Lumberjacks so often in his career, Zienasellassie debuted his 2016 season with a second-place finish and 23:55.1 time. Sticking with the lead pack for basically the entire duration of the race, never falling out of the top-15, Zienasellassie maintained a solid pace as he was able to glide in as the event's runner-up.
Not to be outdone, Baxter—coming off a first-place finish at the Sycamore Invitational last month—hovered just a few strides back of Zienasellassie in order to secure that second single-digit finish Heins was hoping for (8th—24:02.5).
"[Ziensellassie] ran perfectly today; it was just what we needed from him," said Heins. "We needed him to get a low stick and he maintained a good position in the lead pack but also made sure he wasn't too far from his teammates, either. I thought it was a great race from him."
True sophomore Tyler Day also made his inaugural 2016 XC appearance, hustling his way in at 17th with a 24:15.7 mark. In fact, compared to last year's Wisconsin race, Day improved his time by nearly three seconds and jumped 57 places on the individual leaderboard from 2015 to 2016.
Redshirt-junior Cory Glines (24:19.5) and redshirt-sophomore Geordie Beamish (24:26.2) turned in 20th place and 31st place performances, respectively, and rounded out the scoring for the Lumberjack men.
The NAU women also competed on Friday, running before their male counterparts in the 6K championship race. Highlighted by a top-three of Melanie Townsend (33rd—20:46.1), Mikayla Malaspina (83rd--21:15.6) and Kylie Goo (115th--21:36.1), the Lumberjacks produced a gusty and effortful 24th-place team finish. In fact, all three moved up significantly on the individual leaderboard compared to last season's Wisconsin race, with Townsend moving six spots up this year, Malaspina 23 ticks and Goo 26 places.
Emily Roughan (163rd—22:08) and Miranda Myers (196th—23:02.9) also turned in scores for NAU today, while Paige Gilchrist ran in the women's 6K "B" race during the morning session and pieced together a solid showing in her first competitive race of the year.
"We wanted our women to move up throughout the race," said Heins, "and every single one of our runners—if you took their split where they were positioned at the 4K mark to where they finished—did that. From the one mile to the finish, they moved up the entire time, which was a great confidence boost for them."
The 'Jacks will send some athletes to Tempe, Ariz., next weekend for a race at Arizona State before traveling to Moscow, Idaho, for Big Sky Conference Championships on Friday, October 28.