NAU men earn XC region title, NCAA berth

FT. COLLINS, Colo. — For just the sixth time in program history, the Northern Arizona men’s cross country team came away with a team victory at the NCAA Mountain Region Championships on Friday. Thanks to top-10 finishes by Futsum Zienasellassie, Brian Shrader, and Matt McElroy, the Lumberjacks posted a team score of 56 points, winning the men’s event at Collindale Golf Course by 13 points.
 
With the win, the Lumberjacks secured an automatic bid into next weekend’s NCAA Cross Country Championships at E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Ky.
 
“It was perfect,” said head coach Eric Heins, who earned his first regional victory as NAU’s coach Friday. “We went out really slow, so it allowed our top guys to pack up and not really press too hard.  Our guys strung it out, then finished hard in order to secure a national bid but didn’t go so much that they wore themselves out, which is exactly what you want to do at a regional championship meet.”
 
Zienasellassie came in fourth overall in a time of 30:06.8, followed by Shrader in fifth at 20:09.5. McElroy earned 10th place with a finish of 30:20.0. That was the same trio that crossed the finish line simultaneously at the Big Sky Cross Country Championships two weeks ago in Flagstaff, helping to clinch NAU’s record sixth straight conference team title.
 
The last time the NAU men won the Mountain Region championship was 2002, when eventual All-American Seth Watkins and three other All-Region honorees clinched the title with 71 points. The program’s other wins came in 1976, 1986, 1987 and 1988.
 
On the women’s side, NAU senior Rochelle Kanuho had a career day, notching her first top-10 finish by crossing the line ninth overall (20:49.1) to lead the women to an eighth-place team mark.  
 
“Rochelle got out in good position from the start, and even though she wasn’t in the top 10 right away, it was her goal to get there,” said Heins, who has now coached four NAU female runners to top-10 marks in his six Mountain Region meets.  “She just ran phenomenally.  The second half of the race she just kept moving up, and for her to finish her last regional meet with a top-10 was great for her.”
 
As a result of the performance, Kanuho has a shot at an individual bid to the NCAA Championships.  The top four runners who do not qualify for the national meet with their teams are granted an autobid into the national event. Aside from that, two at-large bids remain up for grabs.  
 
At this point, if No. 24 Colorado is granted an at-large bid to NCAAs as a team with its third-place finish, Kanuho would meet the top-four criteria and get in as the No. 4 runner. The U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches’ Association (USTFCCCA) will announce the field for the NCAA Cross Country Championships on Sunday.
 
If selected, Kanuho would be the first NAU female to compete in the NCAA Championships since 2009, when Veronica Pohl competed as an individual and earned her second All-America honor with a 38th-place finish.  
 
On the men’s side, sophomore Caleb Hoover, the only returner from NAU’s 2011 regional team, finished in 13th place with a time of 30:25.8, an improvement of 25 spots and 1 minute, 13 seconds from last year. True freshman Nathan Weitz rounded out the scoring for the Lumberjacks with a 24th-place finish (30:50.9).
 
Cody Reed (31:38.3) and Roman Acosta (32:07.9) finished in 48th and 64th overall as NAU’s sixth and seventh finishers, respectively.
 
For the women, senior Agnes Laurent was the team’s runner-up with a 39th-place finish in 21:37.3. Freshman Melanie Townsend was 56th overall (22:02.6), while sophomore Kylee Kieser finished 59th (22:03.9).
 
Kieser shaved 55 seconds and eight places from her 2011 finish in a gutsy performance that moved her up the NAU ranks to take fourth on the team.
 
“Halfway through the race, we had three girls bunched up, and one of them had to finish strong to score for us,” Heins said. “Kylee did that and helped the team improve upon last year’s finish. She came out and ran really well today.”
 
Freshman Rolonda Jumbo recovered after stumbling over a root early in the race to finish fifth on the team and 62nd overall (22:10.6), while Kerri Lenihan (71st in 22:21.6) and Lauren Justus (74th in 22:30.0) also finished in the top half of the field.
 
With the eighth-place team mark, the NAU women have finished no worse than eighth in all but one Mountain Region championship since its 1982 inception.
 
The 2012 NCAA Championships begin next Saturday, with the women’s championship starting at 10 a.m. Arizona time and with the men’s championship going off at 11:15.