LOGAN, Utah – The Northern Arizona University men's cross country team is going to nationals.
The No. 1 Lumberjacks punched their ticket to NCAA Championships next weekend in Terre Haute, Ind., after winning the NCAA Mountain Region today with 60 team points—16 points better than the No. 2 team in the country, Colorado, and 19 points better than No. 3 BYU.
It was the third regional championship in the last five seasons for the NAU men, as three top-10 and five top-25 performances guided the Lumberjacks to their sixth team victory of the 2016 season. In fact, it was only the sixth time in the history of the program the 'Jacks had three top-10 finishers at regionals, with four of those instances coming during the Coach Eric Heins tenure (2013, 2012, 2007).
"It definitely wasn't our best day," said Director of Cross Country Eric Heins. "We had to deal with some adversity with a couple of our men getting sick and we only ran six athletes, so I think that added a little extra stress."
"With that said, they got through this race like we talked about, and now we have to regroup and remember what got us to this point going into next weekend. They need to have fun with this and enjoy every minute of it."
Futsum Zienasellassie was the first NAU athlete to cross the finish line, flexing his running muscles Friday afternoon to make it back-to-back first-place individual victories following his win at Big Sky Championships a couple weeks back. Today, the redshirt-senior logged a 30:54 time on the 10K course.
For his career, Zienasellassie has been the definition of progression at this regional race, going from fourth freshman year to third sophomore year to second junior year to first senior year.
"[Futsum] has been a great leader for the men," said Heins. "He's been a very consistent athlete for us that the rest of the men can count on, and that gives them confidence as well."
One of the better showings came from redshirt-junior Cory Glines, who pulled away from the large pack of athletes around the 5K mark to lead the field by a healthy 100m. He maintained his consistency throughout the rest of the race and came in for a sixth-place (30:59) mark.
Hot on Glines' heels was his energetic teammate Tyler Day, coming in for a seventh-place finish (31:00). Matt Baxter (22nd—31:19) and Nathan Weitz (24th—31:23) rounded out the scoring for the victorious Lumberjacks, as all five athletes earned All-Mountain Region accolades. For Zienasellassie, it was the fourth such honor in his career, while Weitz and Day tallied their second.
Redshirt-junior Andy Trouard also ran today, finishing 36th in the 113-man field.
The NAU women also ran on Friday and certainly showed a lot of toughness—really exemplifying what it means to be "NAU Strong." The Lumberjacks posted 262 points en route to a 10th-place finish.
"As a team, you look at the results and it's not how they wanted to end the year," said Heins. "However, some individuals really stepped up, gained a lot of experience and showed they're going to continue to improve."
While four of the seven NAU athletes competing today will be returning next XC season, redshirt-seniors Melanie Townsend, Karina Ernst and Emily Roughan donned the blue and gold for the final time today as cross country athletes.
Townsend, a three-time All-Big Sky and two-time NCAA Championships competitor, battled sickness but made no excuses as she gave everything she had to place 31st (21:07). Ernst, a transfer to Flagstaff and the NAU program this year, scored as the fifth runner for the 'Jacks today with a 22:13 (78th) time, while Roughan finished 93rd.
The Lumberjacks' top finisher on the women's side was Mikayla Malaspina, who glided in at 29th place with a 21:03 time. As only a true sophomore, Malaspina figures to be a sure staple in the Lumberjack lineup for years to come.
Also scoring for NAU was the dynamic redshirt-junior duo of Paige Gilchrist (56th—21:39) and Kylie Goo (67th—21:54), both of whom will lead the 'Jacks during the 2017 XC season. Sophomore Miranda Myers also ran Friday, registering 84th-place.
For the men, their season will continue with the NCAA Championship race next Saturday, Nov. 19, in Terre Haute, Ind. The Lumberjacks are seeking the school's first national title of any kind, and the course will run at 10K.
As a funny little tidbit, the NAU men won the Sycamore Invitational earlier in the year on the exact same course nationals will be run on. Individually, Baxter won that race, and Zienasellassie will cap off an incredible XC career in his home state of Indiana and on the course he ran on during his high school days at North Central.