NAU freshman, Fofanah, sets school record in 1st meet

A couple of true freshmen and a redshirt sophomore showed the promise that lies ahead for the Northern Arizona University track & field program by helping the Lumberjacks to a second-place team finish in the season opener.

Pre-season polls projected NAU to repeat as Big Sky Conference champions, and the results from the weekend’s Lumberjack Team Challenge at NAU did little to change those predictions as the Jacks mixed it up with Arizona State and University of Arizona – and held their own.

The NAU men’s team finished second in the seven-team field, with a 107.5 score, behind Arizona State’s strong 150.5-point showing.  The women took fifth place, with 70.5 points.

NAU’s men’s team is already ranked No. 21 in the nation coming into the event, but it can look to some newcomers for help in moving up the rankings.  Three of those making significant contributions Saturday had donned the Lumberjack colors for the first time – and for two it was their first-ever collegiate competition.

Soaking up the lion’s share of the spotlight was Isatu Fofanah, who broke a school record in the women’s 60-meter dash with a sizzling time of 7.48 to eclipse the old mark of 7.52 – which was also set by a freshman last year.  Teammate Darriel Banks got to hold the record for just one season, but has three more years to regain it.

Fofanah, one of Canada’s top junior sprinters last year, came in second overall in the 60 meters and also had a runner-up finish in the 200 meters with a time of 24.92.  Both times were altitude-adjusted.  Her 60-meter time is currently tied for 27th-best in the country.

Another true freshman, Nathan Weitz, finished third in the men’s 800-meter run, but he was overshadowed by the battle for first place between a returning big name in Arizona high school track and a 2012 Olympian.

Brian Shrader, one of the premier distance runners in the country as a prep star, returned this summer to Arizona from University of Oregon where he competed for the Ducks for a couple of years and earned All-American honors.

Shrader, listed as a redshirt sophomore, won three consecutive 4A-II cross country state titles and 10 track & field championships while competing at Sinagua High School in Flagstaff.

The entry of Cam Levins into the Team Challenge Field set up a show-down between the two runners that drew prime-time attention from the fans that showed up to the Walkup Skydome for the first meet of the season.

Levins won the event, but the margin of time separating the two runners at the finish line was .08 seconds.  Shrader, and his coach, were satisfied with the challenge to Levins, the 2012 NCAA champion while at Southern Utah and later Olympic competitor – especially since it wasn’t one of Shrader’s strongest events.

“He (Shrader) got a little carried away through the first 200 meters, and I think if he would have scaled back on the first 400 meters, he could have won it,” said Eric Heins, the NAU director of track & field and cross country.

Shrader’s time of 1:49.93 is the third-best in the country so far this season, and puts him at No. 2 on the NAU indoor all-time list in the event.

“It’s kind of weird because today wasn’t really an important meet, but I was probably the most nervous I’ve been since high school,” Shrader admitted after the event.  “But once the race started, I was just racing again, and all of those nerves kind of went away.”

Shrader, Fofanah, and Weitz were just three of 10 NAU athletes that used the event to post qualifying times for the Big Sky Indoor Championships.  The others included: Deante Kemper, Edgar Panford, Vernon Jamison, Shawn Collins, Lauren Laszczak, Jessica Weiss, and Lauren Stuart.

Kemper and Panford each qualified in two events, as did Fofanah.

The Lumberjack Team Challenge is what Heins calls a “rust-buster.”  It enables the athletes to shake off the cobwebs after the holidays and the coaches to get an early look at their athletes against good competition and determine if they’re where they should be in their physical development at this point.

Having Arizona and Arizona State in the field helps achieve that objective this year; both are nationally-ranked.  “It’s a great chance for us to compete against two high-level track & field programs,” Heins explained.  “Even though it is early in the season, it gives us a chance to see how we stack up against them.

“Depending on what event it is, you could be going up against someone who has been at the national championship, or even the Olympic Trials.”

The Walkup Skydome enables the Lumberjack program to draw top-notch competition from the state and region because it’s the only indoor track & field facility in the state.

That’s one advantage the smaller Big Sky school has over its bigger Pac-12 neighbors.  But it’s also more of a necessity in Flagstaff, where the snow can pile up pretty high during the winter months.

This season the Skydome will enable the track program to have five indoor meets.  Next up is the NAU Invitational on Saturday.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)