Cross country loses Olympian, adds depth with new recruits
by Travis Guy
The expectations put on a team going into its season can make or break the squads’ upcoming campaign. This remains true with the NAU cross country team.
“I’d say we’re looking like a, if you had to grade us right now, we’d be at a ‘B,’ high ‘B,’” said director of cross country Eric Heins. “I mean, they look really good for this early in the season and the neat thing is how deep both squads are.”
For the Northern Arizona University (NAU) men and women’s cross-country squads, the expectations are lofty. The Big Sky Conference preseason coaches’ poll was released and the men were voted to finish atop the BSC again and claim their sixth-consecutive championship, while the ladies were picked to finish second, one spot better than what they finished in the 2011 Big Sky Championships.
For cross country head coach Eric Heins, he feels the pressure of doing what no other cross country squad has done in Big Sky history, winning six men’s titles in a row.
“I look at the guys [and] the pressure they’ve got is trying to do something that’s never been done before, in terms of winning six titles in a row,” Heins said. “When you’ve won five in a row, you have to expect that you’re gonna get picked to win, no matter who you’ve got coming back or what the team looks like.”
The men claimed Big Sky gold behind Diego Estrada’s record-breaking run in Idaho, Jordan Chipangama’s second place finish and senior Tim Freriks and sophomore Matt Coloe’s top-10 finishes.
Estrada, Chipangama and Coloe are three of the five seniors that graduated after the 2011 season. Of the five seniors that contributed to the teams success, Estrada was one of five Jacks to qualify and participate in the 2011 NCAA tournament, where he finished seventh and helped lead the team to a fourteenth place finish. Estrada followed up on his All-American status by representing NAU and Mexico in the 2012 Olympics.
While Heins said it is impossible to replace an athlete like Estrada, he was able to bolster the ranks of the men’s squad and add depth, while looking to his returning NCAA championship participants for leadership and guidance.
Leading the new runners will be Freriks, and sophomore Caleb Hoover. Freriks placed 94th at the championships and Hoover, as a true freshman, finished 177th.
“It was a whole different ball game from high school, that’s for sure,” Hoover said. “Going out there and being in the 100s, it’s quite [a] different experience and it made me a lot more motivated for this season to come in [to the season] in better shape, because I know I didn’t come in near as good of shape last year. Just being more prepared is what it taught me.”
As a true freshman, Hoover competed in six races. While only cracking the top-10 once (at the George Kyte Invitational), Hoover helped the Jacks place in tournaments with strong finishes.
Freriks earned to top-5 finishes during 2011, at the George Kyte (2nd) and fifth at the Big Sky Championships.
This upcoming season will feature the debuts of a Gatorade National Boys runner of the year (Futsum Zienasellassie) and a Foot Locker All-American (Nathan Weitz). To complement the incoming freshmen, the runners added three transfers. Sophomores Brian Shrader and Matt McElroy join the Lumberjacks this season and senior Roman Acosta, a transfer from Syracuse.
“[For Gebreyohanns] when Zienasellasie, came to visit, it seemed like a really good fit for him,” Heins said. “Then to have, you know, really get fortunate with Nathan Weitz liking Flagstaff and NAU and wanting to come. So, [we] get two Foot Locker guys in one year was really, really pretty impressive. I couldn’t tell you how it happened. It just kind of [was] a perfect storm. We hadn’t signed anybody like that then we end up signing two in one year.”
Shrader is a Flagstaff native who graduated from Sinagua High School in 2010 and was recruited by the University of Oregon. In his freshman year, Shrader qualified for the 2010 NCAA championships, running as a Duck. While in high school, Shrader was a three-time Arizona Gatorade Athelte of the Year and a two-time Foot Locker National Championship finalist.
McElroy transferred from Oklahoma State University. As a Cowboy, McElroy competed in two events. He finished eleventh at the 2010 Cowboy Classic and 32nd at the 2010 NCAA Midwest Regional Championships.
The women’s cross country squad is coming off a third place finish at last years’ Big Sky Championships and was picked to finish second, 20 points behind Weber State University.
“I think that’s [a] pretty fair [assessment],” said Rochelle Kanuho. “I think we have strong team this year and we’re all, I mean not me, but the rest of the girls are pretty young so I think a goal as a team is top-3 at Big Sky”
The women will be debuting a relatively young team with eight freshmen and three seniors. While the seniors may have the most experience on the team, there has been no clear-cut leader on the team. Instead, according to Heins, the team has been working as one unit and each day someone else is taking the reins.
Leading the seniors is Kanuho, who redshirted her as a true freshman and debuted for the Jacks in 2010. Through the 2011 season, the Flagstaff native tallied four top-10 finishes as a junior. Joining Kanuho as the seniors on the team are Lisette Michaels and Agnes Laurent.
“I think being one of the top runners, definitely motivating the girls and just every workout we run together, I just have to motivate them and be sure I stay positive, so they see that I don’t get too down on myself and so they don’t feel too down on themselves either,” Kanuho said.
Michaels competed in only two events during 2011, the George Kyte Invitational (24th) and the Dave Murray Invitational (33rd). Laurent participated in five races during her first year at NAU. She almost cracked the top-10 at the Dave Murray Invitational, finishing 11th, two seconds behind the 10th place finisher.
Of the eight freshmen joining the women’s team, Melbourne, Australia native Melanie Townsend and Arizona residents Emma Schraner and Rolanda Jumbo stand out. Townsend has experience running in international competitions, placing sixth in the 2010 International School Sport Federation World School Cross Country Championships in Slovakia and fifth in the 2010 Zatopek Classic’s Under–20 Women’s 3K race.
Schraner and Jumbo both raced in the 2011 AIA Division III State Championships. Schraner finished seventh in the mile race and eighth in the two-mile race, while Jumbo helped her team to win the state championship.
While the expectations for both squads may be high, coach Heins and the runners are not letting the pressure get to them and keeping one goal in mind.
“My expectations are to have both teams shooting for a Big Sky Championship here in flagstaff and then moving on to the national championships,” Heins said.