At some point, it would seem the NAU cross-country program would need to catch its breath and step off the throne for a season.
But it doesn’t look like this will be the year.
Both the men’s and women’s cross-country teams at Northern Arizona University have been picked in the pre-season coaches poll to finish atop the conference – again. It would be a fourth straight title for the women and the fifth consecutive for the men.
The return of the conference’s premier distance runner, David McNeill, is a good reason for such high expectations. McNeill has used up his track & field eligibility, but will have this one last cross-country season to defend his Big Sky Conference title for the Lumberjacks.
Last season, the three-time cross-country All American led the Jacks to a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championships and finished runner-up for the individual title. He is just one of four track athletes in NAU history to win multiple national titles, and also won championships in 2010 in the indoor and outdoor 5,000m.
McNeill was named the 2010 Mountain Region Track Athlete of the Year by the USTFCC Coaches Association for both the indoor and outdoor seasons, as well as for the 2009 cross-country season.
The men’s cross-country team received eight out of nine possible votes for a pre-season first place, while the women picked up six votes.
The women’s team returns an impressive line-up of runners for 2010, including two All-Conference selections. NAU’s women have won nine of the last 11 Big Sky championships.
Kortnee Burton ran in five races for the Jacks last season as a sophomore, finishing second on the team in all but one event. She finished runner-up at the Big Sky Championships with a time of 19:27.6.
Haley Lawrence, the other All-Big Sky selection, competed in six races last season as a sophomore and had a sixth-place finish at the Big Sky Championships, clocking in at 19:54.9.
The Lumberjacks’ head coach for both men’s and women’s programs, Eric Heins, has also been accumulating some hardware. He was named the Big Sky Conference Men’s and Women’s Cross-Country Coach of the Year after leading both teams to conference titles last year.
This was Heins’ third straight men’s Coach of the Year awards. He won the women’s award in 2007.
“The selection of both teams to finish first means a lot of respect from the coaches in the conference, but in reality it doesn’t mean anything until we get to the conferecence championships and back that up,” said Heins in acknowledging the pre-season standings.
That will happen on October 30 in Spokane, Wash. Until then, the other Big Sky schools will continue playing catch-up.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)