Forged in Flagstaff, Achieved in Terre Haute

NAU's Zienasellassie, Heins, Weitz & Glines (Credit: Dave Wegiel/Pinola Photo)
NAU's Zienasellassie, Heins, Weitz & Glines (Credit: Dave Wegiel/Pinola Photo)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Here we are: 48 hours removed from arguably the greatest sports moment in the history of Northern Arizona University athletics, and it still feels somewhat like a dream.

The No. 1 Lumberjack men's cross country team did things no other squad has done or seen in the long and storied history of this respected distance program, such as:

  • For only the second time ever, they climbed all the way to the top of the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches' Association (USTFCCCA) National Poll on Tuesday, Sept. 27.
  • They made program history by nabbing that No. 1 ranking for two consecutive weeks.
  • Subsequently, the team retained the nation's top spot unanimously from Tuesday, Oct. 18—following their first-place victory at Wisconsin—until the end of the 2016 season.
  • The team accounted for the first six athletes to cross the finish line at Big Sky Championships, becoming the first conference team to ever accomplish such a feat, en route to posting a perfect score (15 points) for the second time in Big Sky history.

Additionally, the men won the NCAA Mountain Region with 60 points, the third-lowest point total ever for an NAU team in a winning effort at regionals, and pieced together five All-Mountain Region performances for only the second time.

And then, there's national championships. It should go without saying this was a remarkable and glorious moment for NAU considering it was the first ever major NCAA national title any program has won. In the 46 year history of NAU cross country, it was the first time this highly-revered and respected distance program—training at altitude and on the peaks of a mountain—climbed higher than 7,000 feet and reached the ultimate pinnacle team after Lumberjack team has so desperately tried to reach.

They came close, though, as the 1988, 1995 and 2013 squads will attest. They have finished on the NCAA podium 11 times since first doing so back in 1988, but never got the chance to hoist that elusive and coveted national title…until Saturday.

Not only did the Lumberjacks secure the program and school's first NCAA Championship in Terre Haute, Ind., this past weekend, it was also the first national title for any Big Sky Conference university outside of the sport of football. With recognition like that, it is hard to pinpoint or put one's finger on a specific moment from last Saturday that really stands out above the rest.

One could imagine the amount of determination and resiliency redshirt-junior Cory Glines experienced after falling down around the 3K mark and finding himself in dead last among the 251 athlete field, only to motor his way past 167 athletes to become NAU's all-important fifth man with 66 points (84th-place overall).

While Glines' performance was nothing short of spectacular, what really made this team so dominate throughout the 2016 XC campaign, going undefeated with seven team victories, was its depth. This reality was no different at nationals, for even if Glines doesn't recover from his spill, four-time NCAA competitor and redshirt-senior Nathan Weitz would have had his teammate's back with 75 points of his own. Even NAU's seventh-man at the national race, redshirt-freshman Geordie Beamish, mustered 77 points, which still would have been good enough for a team victory over second-place Stanford by 22 points.

Of course, there is redshirt-senior Futsum Zienasellassie's fourth-place time of 29:49.8—a career-best mark at NCAA's in the 10K race—in front of all his family and friends on his home cross country course. With his finish, Zienasellassie also made history by becoming the first Lumberjack XC athlete to ever garner All-American status in each of his four seasons.

One could also look toward redshirt-junior Matt Baxter with his 11th-place finish, true sophomore Tyler Day's 23rd-place showing or redshirt-junior Andy Trouard's 37th-place time and realize the NAU team locked up four All-American performances at nationals—the most of any men's team at the race and only the third time this program has done such a thing.

However, what all the above instances have in common, what each and every Lumberjack cross country athlete is fully aware of, is that none of what happened Saturday could have been or would have been accomplished if it were not for the unmatched and one-of-a-kind leadership Head Coach Eric Heins has provided. Since arriving on campus as the head coach in 2007, Heins' sparknotes resume looks like this:

  • 28 Big Sky Conference Championships Overall
  • 27 Big Sky Coach of the Year Honors Overall
  • 14 Cross Country All-Americans
  • 6 NCAA Cross Country Podium Finishes
  • 4 Olympians Have Been Coached Under Heins
  • 3 NCAA Cross Country Mountain Region Championships
  • 1 NCAA National Championship

Truly, the title won Saturday that will now sit front-and-center in the trophy cases at the HLC Coaches' Offices for years and decades to come cannot be and would not be possible if not for the amount of passion, desire and commitment Heins has radiated for the better part of a decade in Flagstaff.

If there is one tidbit, though, someone can take away from this run at the university's inaugural national championship, it is this: NAU became the first team since 1969 and only the eighth team ever to go from not competing at NCAA Championships one season and winning the whole thing the next.

That is not by mistake and it is not some random coincidence; it was a strategic plan made by Heins and executed by his phenomenally-talented and driven athletes that wanted nothing more than to become what Heins has now coached them to be: champions.