TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – If you ask most people around the country to point out Flagstaff, Ariz., on a map, there would be some trouble doing so. Even more would have a hard time telling you that city is home to Northern Arizona University—a haven for distance runners.
On this particular day, though, against all the odds and unfavorable weather conditions Mother Nature could throw at them, seven competing athletes from the nation's unanimous No. 1 cross country team rallied together to show exactly the kind of talent this Mountain town breeds and the amount of pride they have in its university.
Finally, for the first time in school history, the Lumberjacks of NAU are NCAA National Champions.
A Hollywood script writer couldn't have pieced together a better story on how Saturday unfolded. Following the conclusion of the men's 10K race on the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course, even Director of Cross Country Eric Heins—in his 10th and final season at the helm for NAU—said he wasn't sure his men pulled out the victory.
"I had bad thoughts, honestly, as we were crossing the finish line," said Heins. "I heard that we were winning—but not by much—at 8K, and I couldn't tell where Nathan [Weitz] had finished. I thought he was our fifth man because I didn't see any of our other athletes pass him. It was nerve-racking."
Sure enough, though, on the backs of four NCAA All-American performances from Futsum Zienasellassie, Matt Baxter, Tyler Day and Andy Trouard, the Lumberjacks bested the likes of Stanford and Syracuse to claim first place with 125 points. In fact, NAU outlasted the second-place Cardinal by 33 points and posted its lowest score ever at nationals—trumping the previous Lumberjack-record low of 142 points in 1995.
Zienasellassie crossed the finish line first for NAU, as he has done all season long, registering a fourth-place time of 29:49.8 (4:48.2/m). Even though Zienasellassie finished third in 2014 at NCAA's, this was a career-best time for him at the 10K national race. Additionally, the redshirt-senior from Indianapolis—racing on a course he is more than familiar with in front of dozens of family and friends—became the first ever Lumberjack cross country athlete to be crowned a four-time NCAA All-American.
Baxter came in after Zienasellassie for NAU, logging nine points with an 11th-place finish (30:03.1, 4:50.4/m). The redshirt-junior from New Zealand battled sickness at NCAA Mountain Regionals last weekend but clearly showed no signs of illness today in earning his first career XC All-American accolade.
Day tallied 18 points with a 23rd-place time (30:13, 4:51.9/m), while Trouard ran in for 37th-place and 29 points with a 30:23.5 mark (4:53.6/m). Both athletes were also honored as All-Americans today, tying the program record for top-40 finishes at national championships (4).
"We knew if we were going to try and make history, all points needed to be addressed and hit," said Day. "Going into the race, I said I wasn't going to leave without a medal or team championship. This is one of the top moments of my running career, by far."
Cory Glines was the all-important fifth man Saturday for the Lumberjacks, hustling his way toward 84th-place (30:46.4, 4:57.3/m). In addition to the wind and cold, Glines also had to deal with a stumble during the race. He regained his composure, though, and locked up a crucial and decisive 66 points.
"It was an amazing team effort today," said Graduate Assistant Coach Jarred Cornfield. "Seeing everybody do their part, it was awesome. Glines took a spill, which is something you can never predict, but he recovered really well. Then you have Nate and Geordie who really toughed it out today. It was just an all-around great team performance."
Heins' replacement, Coach Michael Smith, echoed those same sentiments.
"The way they won is really important to note," said Smith. "Their win is the sum of everyone doing their part, their contribution, their job. We had seven athletes run for their team, and that's how we got done what we did today."
Putting This Performance in Perspective
Not only was this national title the first for NAU as a cross country program, it was the first of its kind in any sport for the Lumberjacks, as well as the first NCAA Championship for a Big Sky Conference school outside of football.
Before today, the most top-25 finishes NAU registered at NCAA's was two. Today, they also broke that mark with three athletes crossing the line in the top-25.
The Lumberjacks became the first non-Power 5 university to win NCAA Cross Country Championships since UTEP accomplished the feat in 1981.
Coach Heins' Legacy
He came in gunning for that all-elusive national title, and he leaves as one of the best coaches NAU has ever seen. This was the ninth NCAA XC Championship appearance for NAU with Heins as the head coach. In those nine instances, Heins has podiumed an impressive six times. In the program's previous 17 appearances at nationals over a span of 45 years, they only had five podium finishes.
"I'm kind of numb right now," said Heins, moments after finding out his squad won the national title. "It's an unbelievable feeling. I'm so proud of these men putting it together and racing like this. There was a lot of pressure and expectations on them. To top it off, it was 'Coach Heins' last race, what are we going to do?' Well, they come out and win the dang thing. I'm just so proud of them."