NAU cross country begins 2013 with No. 2 pre-season rank

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                </div>When he decided to return home from Oregon, Brian Shrader could not have foreseen what has happened to the Northern Arizona University cross country program. Or maybe he did have […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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When he decided to return home from Oregon, Brian Shrader could not have foreseen what has happened to the Northern Arizona University cross country program.

Or maybe he did have a good idea that he was transferring from the University of Oregon to a program that was about to become one of the two best in all of Division I.

Shrader is one of the elite distance runners in the country and during his four years at Sinagua High School in Flagstaff he became a celebrity of sorts among the running community.  He won three consecutive 4A-II cross country state titles and 10 championships in track & field.  As a senior he won four titles in four different events and earned his third Gatorade Arizona boys track & field Athlete of the Year award.

He discovered after a couple of seasons at Oregon, where he qualified for the NCAA National Championships as a freshman, that he missed the green-covered mountains of Flagstaff, where he enjoyed running the old roads and dirt trails of the high country.

So it’s no surprise, really, that the addition of Shrader to an already good NAU cross country men’s program would only make it better.  His first year back as a junior, the Lumberjack men finished the 2012 season as the No. 4-ranked team in the country, up from No. 14 the year before.

Last year was definitely one of over-achievement.  That squad, with only one returning member of a team that had finished 14th in the country the year before, was supposed to be in a rebuilding mode and were picked in the pre-season to finish No. 17.

And now the US Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association has just announced its pre-season poll results for this season – putting the men’s team at the No. 2 spot behind defending national champion Oklahoma State.

Earlier this summer, the men’s team was the unanimous coaches’ pick to win the Big Sky Conference as well.  Of course, that was something of a no-brainer since the Jacks swept the top three spots at last year’s Big Sky Championships, with Shrader leading the way.  Matt McElroy, the other transfer last year (from Oklahoma State), took second; and Futsum Zienasellassie, in his freshman campaign, finished third.

Not only are all three back again this year, but NAU returns its entire men’s roster.  That means there is little to stop the men’s team from pocketing their seventh consecutive Big Sky title.

On the women’s side, there was enough progress in the re-building efforts the past few years that the team has been picked in the pre-season polls to finish second in the Big Sky.

The 2013 schedule is a challenging one, with more meets than many college programs include, and considerable time on the road.  But it suits Eric Heins, the men’s coach and director of track & field who is the reigning Big Sky Coach of the Year.

“I am very excited about this schedule,” he admits.  “We have a good mix of competitions that are close to home and competitions that will test us against the best in the country.”

The teams will open the 2013 season with the George Kyte Classic next week.  It’s a home meet, to be held Sept. 7 at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff.

If history repeats itself, Shrader should get off to a great start to his senior campaign.  Last year, he was the wire-to-wire leader at the George Kyte and won it going away, finishing 20 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor.

Whether or not the NAU men’s team can fulfill the lofty pre-season predictions, there’s one thing for sure.  They won’t sneak up on anybody this year.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)