FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona University Lumberjack cross country program is Utah bound as the season shifts toward Logan and the NCAA Mountain Region Championships this weekend.
Both Lumberjack teams will be on display Friday, as the Big Sky Champs and No. 1 nationally-ranked men gear up to face some of the country's toughest competition in their 10K championship race at noon, while the women—also coming off a thrilling victory at Big Sky Conference Championships two weekends ago—prepare for a 6K championship run at 11 a.m.
"I want our men to run the style of race that allows them to give their best effort while not worrying too much about what's going on around them," said Director of Cross Country Eric Heins. "This will be their first 10K of the season, so if they can run hard the last 2K—knowing they'll face the same task going into nationals next weekend—I think it's going to help us."
Heading into this race, the NCAA Mountain Region features the nation's top-three men's teams in NAU, Colorado and BYU—three squads certainly vying for spots at NCAA Championships in just over a week. The Lumberjacks will showcase their A-list lineup, led by three-time NCAA Cross Country All-American Futsum Zienasellassie.
Zienasellassie is coming off of his second performance of the 2016 season at conference championships, in which he became just the fourth Lumberjack and 10th Big Sky athlete ever to win multiple individual XC titles. For his career, the redshirt-senior has never finished worse than fourth at a regional competition, with his most recent showing being a second-place performance in 2014.
Redshirt-junior Matt Baxter—who has pieced together an All-American-type season with a first-place finish at the Sycamore Invitational, an eighth-place time at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invite and a runner-up performance at conference—and true sophomore Tyler Day—an All-Mountain Region athlete in 2015 coming off a third-place finish at Big Sky—will also lace 'em up for the 'Jacks on Friday.
"Our athletes are all so similar, they can definitely run together through 8K, especially in a race like this," said Heins. "I think you'll see three or four teams doing the same thing, so it's not going to break up for a long time."
Also looking to make some noise in the region will be the NAU women following a gutsy 5K victory in Moscow, Idaho, for the Big Sky Championship. It was the team's second title in three seasons, and you can bet the Lumberjacks are riding that wave of excitement into Friday's race.
While entering Logan, Utah, ranked seventh in the region, the Lumberjacks possess a certain flare for the dramatic and could potentially surprise some teams with an A+ performance.
Two-time All-Region athlete Melanie Townsend, who has been the top finisher for NAU in every race she has competed in this year, runs this Friday along with teammates Kylie Goo (2016 All-Big Sky), Mikayla Malaspina (2016 All-Big Sky), Paige Gilchrist, Emily Roughan, Karina Ernst and Miranda Myers.
"From our women, we're looking for more of the same: not worrying about their results and focusing on how well they're competing and running the race," said Heins. "As a results goal, the women want to go in and finish higher than their No. 7 ranking and maybe surprise some people playing that underdog role. It's more about them running their style of race and finishing with a good, confident feeling."
For the men's team, it is not so much about winning the NCAA Mountain Region as it is just punching their ticket to NCAA Championships. In order to do so, they either need to be one of the top-two teams in the region to earn an auto-bid, or they will rely on securing one of the nation's 13 at-large bids. For the women, same rules apply. A complete breakdown of the NCAA qualification criteria can be found here.
For what it is worth, the last time NAU won a regional championship race was in 2013—a team that repeated from the year previous and possessed three athletes currently on this year's squad (Zienasellassie, Weitz and Trouard). Historically, the last time the women won the Big Sky, they finished fourth at this race (2014). They have not earned a national team bid since 2008, and have not won the region since 1992.