It has been a monster year for Eric Heins – and for his Northern Arizona University track & field teams.
The sixth-year NAU head coach will be taking 10 Lumberjacks to Eugene, Ore., to compete in the NCAA national outdoor championships, following an impressive performance last weekend at the West Preliminary competition in Austin, TX.
Last year, when the team won the Big Sky men’s championship by setting a conference record with 221 total points, there were four that made the trip to the nationals. The leap to 10 this season surprised even Heins, who was named the Big Sky Conference Men’s Coach of the Year after his men’s team won their second straight Big Sky title. His women’s team finished in third place.
“It’s really exciting as a coach to witness something like this,” Heins said after the prelims. “It makes you feel confident and shows that the assistant coaches are doing exactly what they need to do to get the athletes prepared. Nobody shied away from the competition this weekend, and this is one of the biggest stages in the country.”
But the stage gets bigger and the spotlight glare becomes even more intense a week from now when the nation’s best Division I athletes gather at Hayward Field in Oregon for the June 5 start of the national finals.
That experience will be most unsettling for several freshmen that will make the trip as part of the NAU contingent:
Nathan Weitz earned the last automatic qualifying spot in the first heat of the men’s 1,500 meter quarterfinals in Austin with a time of 3:49.99; Futsum Zienasellassie clocked a 14:12.32 for eighth place in the 5,000 meters; and Kylene Knutson threw for a personal-best 155’5.25″ in the women’s javelin competition to set the third-best mark in school history.
Weitz is from Washington and Zienasellassie is from Indiana, but Knutson is a local athlete from Chandler High School, where the girls’ team won four state titles while she was there.
Two other Arizona-bred athletes will also be among the group heading to Eugene. Rochelle Kanuho is a senior distance runner from Coconino High School in Flagstaff who qualified in the 10,000 meters, and Lauren Laszczak is a senior from Ironwood Ridge High School in Tucson that will be competing in the high jump.
Edgar Panford, a junior from California, also earned a spot on the school’s all-time lists. Panford soared to a career-best 52’4″ in the triple jump to place his leap at No. 2 in NAU history and likely hold as one of the top 15 marks in the country this season. And Diego Estrada, the Big Sky Co-MVP this season, broke the stadium record with a 13:46.90 finish in the 5,000 meters.
Rounding out the 10 spots are Lauren Stuart in the hammer throw, Denate Kemper in the high jump, and Julie Viberg in the discus.
“We brought a well-rounded team to Austin,” says Heins, “and we’re taking a well-rounded team to the national championships.”
(Photo: NAU Athletics)