NAU track teams picked to finish No. 1, No. 2 in Big Sky

The Northern Arizona track & field teams will have to live up to expectations this year without the help of some of their best athletes, who were lost to graduation.

The Lumberjacks’ men’s team has been picked to win the Big Sky Conference again this year, based on the pre-season coaches’ poll.  The men’s squad is looking to win its third straight conference title when the indoor season opens next Friday with the Cherry & Silver Invitational in New Mexico.

On the women’s side, this year’s squad tied with Weber State for second-place in the coaches’ poll.  Sacramento State was picked to win it all.

The men return 15 scorers from the previous Big Sky championship teams.  But they will be without David McNeill in the distance competition and Javier Villarreal in the throws group.

McNeill, who has turned professional, wrapped up national championships in both the indoor and outdoor 5,000-meter event before leaving Flagstaff.  That accomplishment made him just the second male in NAU history to win two national titles in one season.

A pair of juniors will attempt to fill the void left by McNeill.  Diego Estrada and Ahmed Osman both earned All-America honors at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in November.

Osman is a two-time All-American in the 10,000 meters.  Together with Jordan Chipangama and Ben Ashkettle, the trio accounted for a big chunk of the scoring points at last year’s conference meet, and are expected to perform well this year at the national level.

The men’s distance team returns 10 upperclassmen from the 2010 squad.

Villarreal made his contribution to the men’s program in the throws competition, where he won five Big Sky titles in the shot put and advanced to two outdoor championships and one indoor.

A trio of upperclassmen will be expected to step in where Villarreal left off: seniors Jacob Nicol and Andres Rossini and junior Pascal Tang.

Rossini was one of the top 15 throwers in the nation last year, won a Big Sky title in the discus, and made it to the outdoor national championships.  Tang is coming off a redshirt season, but had previously pocketed titles in the weight and hammer events.

Nicol is one of those local products that proved to be a great find for NAU.  The senior from Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria is considered one of the most versatile athletes in men’s throws, having scored in conference meets in the shot, weight throw, hammer throw, and discus.

On the women’s side, they will miss the contributions from Nell Rojas in the distance competition.  Rojas was a major contributor all four years at NAU, winning three Big Sky titles and advancing to the NCAA regional meet in each outdoor season with the Jacks.

They will be counting heavily on junior Lisette Michaels and sophomore Rochelle Kanuho, who both had impressive campaigns last year.  Kanuho had three top-five finishes and earned All-Big Sky honors; Michaels is coming off a very successful cross country season.

But a particularly strong part of this season’s women’s team is expected to be the throws group, which has been a mainstay to the team’s success in recent years.

The Jacks return a lot of talent in the throws, including Arshiya Hoseyni, a senior from Iran, and Lauren Stuart, a sophomore from Canada.  The pair made it to last year’s NCAA Preliminary Round Championships.

And then there’s another pair of seniors who will lead the way this year, Nicole Elliott and Michelle Baltimore.  Elliott was the women’s 2009 weight throw champion and Baltimore, who is coming off a redshirt season, scored in both the discus and hammer throw in 2009.

Elliott and Baltimore are more examples of the local talent scattered throughout the NAU rosters.  Elliott graduated from Sandra Day O’Connor HS in Phoenix, where she holds school records in the shot put and discus.  Baltimore is an all-around athlete from Yuma Catholic HS, where she also played basketball.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)