Local prep stars take over NAU cross country program

The NAU cross country teams are loaded with talent this year.  But it’s the home-grown runners that are making a difference like never before.

For the first time in the history of the Northern Arizona University program, both men’s and women’s teams are captained by Flagstaff natives.  And both teams are off to one of the best starts in recent memory.

The men’s team, captained by junior Brian Shrader, has won both opening events, placing five of the top seven runners and finishing first at the annual home meet, the George Kyte Classic, and then running away with the title in the Pac-12 Preview meet hosted last weekend by UCLA.

The women’s squad place fourth in the George Kyte and tied with UC-Davis for second place at UCLA.

Shrader is a junior who transferred in from Oregon over the summer, following two years running for the Ducks, where he qualified for the NCAA National Championships as a freshman and appeared in the NCAA West Region Championships last year.

But his name is very familiar to track and cross country fans in Arizona, particularly those in the high country where Shrader was perhaps the most well-known athlete throughout four years at Sinagua High School in Flagstaff.

His reputation, however, spread throughout the state as one of the premier distance runners in the country.  Shrader won three conseutive 4A-II cross country state titles and 10 championships in track & field.

For his finale as a senior he won four titles in four different events: the 800-meter run, the 1,600 meters, the 3,200 meters, and was a member of the championship 4×800 relay team.  He won the prestigious Gatorade Arizona Boys T&F Athlete of the Year three times, twice for cross country and once in track.

And, based on his performances so far in a Lumberjack uniform, he hasn’t slowed a step since high school.  He was the wire-to-wire leader in the George Kyte, putting on a dominating display by finishing 20 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor.  At UCLA he crossed the finish line in a dead heat with teammate Futsum Zienasellassie from Indianapolis, a true freshman who was last year’s Gatorade National Runner of the Year.

Shrader’s performance in the George Kyte earned him honors as the Co-Athlete of the Week in the Big Sky Conference, in just his first meet since returning home.

Matt McElroy finished third at UCLA to give the Jacks three in the top five finishers, and then Caleb Hoover came in seventh and Alejandro Montano took ninth to dominate the top 10 spots.  Montano is another local athlete who set school records in the 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter events at Catalina High School in Tucson.

Shrader’s decision to return to Flagstaff for his final two years also re-unites him with one of his old high school rivals, Tim Freriks, a three-time All-State selection who competed for Mingus Union High School in nearby Cottonwood, where he holds the school record in the 3,200 meters.  The two became good friends as they attended meets together during their junior and senior years.

The women’s captain, Rochelle Kanuho, is a redshirt senior who also got her start at a Flagstaff high school, earning Grand Canyon Regional Track & Field MVP honors in 2005 and 2006 at Coconino High School.

Kanuho led last year’s women’s team in five of her six races and was again the top finisher for the Jacks at this year’s UCLA meet, finishing seventh in the 5K race.  A ninth-place finish by Caroline Hogardh gave NAU two spots in the top 10.

The UCLA event was Kanuho’s first race of the season since was one of a handful of top runners for NAU that were held out of the George Kyte to give some of the younger runners some early meet experience.

The men’s team wrapped up the 2011 season ranked as the No. 14 team in the nation and were given a pre-season spot at No. 17 for 2012.  They lost five seniors from the 2011 squad, but this years’ roster includes some young, but experienced, runners that will blend in a trio of transfers and some solid freshman talent.

The women are coming off a couple of years of rebuilding and are looking for another step up this season as they return five of the top seven runners from 2011.  They didn’t receive a pre-season ranking, but did garner seven votes from the poll members – which the Director of Track & Field and Cross Country Eric Heins considers a vote of confidence for his young squad that is top-heavy with sophomores.

Shrader has been returning to Flag from Oregon each summer and winter and quickly discovered he missed running the old roads and dirt trails he trained on while in high school.

His return to his roots was an unexpected surprise for Heins.  And a huge boost for the Lumberjack program.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)