MOSCOW, Idaho – Whew. Now that we can finally take a breath, what a thrilling day it was.
For the second time in three seasons, the 15th time in school history, and the fifth time during the Coach Eric Heins era, the Northern Arizona University cross country program has swept the Big Sky Cross Country Championships.
From the get-go, the No. 1 Lumberjack men's team never faltered, leading the entire field through 5K until stud redshirt-senior Futsum Zienasellassie (23:58) pulled away from the rest of the pack and coasted in as the 2016 individual conference champion. For Zienasellassie, it was the second such XC title in his illustrious NAU career, making him part of an elite class of 10 Big Sky athletes—four of them former Lumberjacks—to ever win multiple XC individual titles.
Zienasellassie's teammates Matt Baxter (24:13), Tyler Day (24:16), Cory Glines (24:32), Andy Trouard (24:32) and Nathan Weitz (24:32) all followed him in successively two through six, marking the first time ever in conference history a team finished 1-2-3-4-5-6.
It was also only the second time in the 54-year history of Big Sky XC Championships that a team ran a perfect 15-point score—with NAU's 1988 national-runner up squad accomplishing the same feat. For good measure, Geordie Beamish (9th—24:51) added another all-conference performance to the mix for the Lumberjacks today as he was named the Big Sky Men's Freshman of the Year.
"We wanted to run hard today because this race was part of our training plan," said Director of Cross Country Eric Heins. "We weren't going to do a whole lot of work early in the week so we could come to Idaho and run hard, and then prepare ourselves to run well at the national meet. I was excited about how our men performed, and also how they executed."
The more exciting race, though, belonged to the women's 5K championship run. Coming off a 24th-place finish in Wisconsin earlier this month—one in which conference foe Weber State edged them by two points for 23rd—the Lumberjack women were fired up and ready to prove themselves on the University of Idaho's golf course this afternoon.
Redshirt-senior Melanie Townsend became a three-time all-conference performer with her fourth-place (17:39) finish on Friday, while teammates Kylie Goo (6th–17:54) and Mikayla Malaspina (8th–17:58) secured their first career All-Big Sky accolades. Emily Roughan (14th—18:10) and Paige Gilchrist (16th—18:12) rounded out the scoring for the Lumberjacks as NAU engineered a 12-point margin of victory over second-place Weber State with a victorious 48 points.
"They ran their best race of the year when it mattered most, which says a lot about who they are and how much work they've put in from the beginning of the year until now," said Heins. "It was a great competition today. Hats off to Weber State with their top-two athletes running phenomenally. I think they improved from the last time we saw them, but I cannot say enough about how our women ran. The attitude they took into this meet was something we should be extremely proud of as a university."
It was certainly another notch in an already successful belt for Heins, as he will now leave both programs at the conclusion of this season right where he picked up back in 2007—as the cross country champions of the Big Sky.
"If you've been to Flagstaff and you're a distance runner, you should want to come to NAU," said Heins. "It was phenomenal for the women to come here and piece together the performance they had, and for the men to live up to the expectations with a target on their back."
"We have a busy couple of weeks ahead of us, but this shows that if you're an up-and-coming distance runner and want to train at 7,000 feet, you should come NAU and run in an environment the athletic department supports."
As Heins referenced above, there is still work to be done this season as both squads prepare for NCAA Mountain Regional Championships in two weeks on Friday, Nov. 11, in Logan, Utah. NCAA Championships will follow the next weekend on Saturday, Nov. 19, in Terre Haute, Ind.
NOTES: This was the 26th cross country team championship for the men and the 19th team championship for the women … During those championship seasons, the men have finished 1-2 an astounding 20 out of 26 times … It was the seventh such time the NAU men placed 1-2-3 at conference championships, and only the second time a Big Sky team went 1-2-3-4-5 … These were the first two XC championships the Lumberjacks have ever won in Moscow, Idaho … It was the first time since the 2009 season a Lumberjack women's team earned three All-Big Sky performances in a championship victory