ASU introduces new in-state XC invitational today

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                </div>  When it comes to athletics, Northern Arizona University has at least one advantage to being located 7,000 feet above the desert floor.  The thin air at that elevation provides an […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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When it comes to athletics, Northern Arizona University has at least one advantage to being located 7,000 feet above the desert floor.  The thin air at that elevation provides an ideal training environment for distance runners.

It’s just a good thing the snow doesn’t usually arrive until cross country season is in the books.

And today the Lumberjack runners get one last chance to test that training advantage against their bigger in-state foes from the Pac-12 Conference as they close out the regular season in Tempe at the Arizona State Invitational. The University of Arizona will round out the three-team field.

Normally, the three schools meet twice a year, with NAU hosting one in-state invitational at the beginning of the season and Arizona inviting the group to Tucson a couple of weeks later, before the major meets get underway. This year, ASU decided it was time to put out the welcome mat and create a third opportunity to compete.

Today’s invitational, which will be run over the Karsten Golf Course on the eastern edge of the campus, is actually the first time the Sun Devils have hosted a meet since the 2010 season.  The women’s three-mile competition will head out first at 4:20 pm, followed by the men running a four-mile course that will begin 40 minutes later.

“As I had conversations with the other head coaches in the state, Coach (Eric) Heins at NAU and Coach (James) Li at Arizona, I think there was a need for us to be a part of the goodwill for cross country and distance running in the community, and be able to host meets in all parts of the state,” explained Louie Quintana, the ASU cross country head coach for the past 11 seasons.

The Lumberjacks will actually come into today’s event with the highest national ranking among the three teams. NAU’s men’s team collected 238 points to  give them a No. 10 ranking this week in the US Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches’ Association poll.  The Arizona State women’s team is the only other in the group in the Top 25, currently ranked 22nd.

Rankings will actually mean little today since all three teams will likely hold out most of their top runners to rest them before next week’s conference championships.

That means fans won’t get a chance to see Northern Arizona’s dynamic duo of Futsum Zienasellassie and Matt McElroy that just posted top-10 finishes at one of the nation’s top cross country events, the Wisconsin adidas Invitational.   All three Arizona schools participated in the annual event, considered to be the best competition of the college cross country season because it draws many of the nation’s best teams.  Nineteen of the 38 men’s teams and 22 of the 40 women’s teams entered were nationally-ranked.

The NAU men’s team finished in sixth place, led by Zienasellassie and McElroy, both juniors.  Zienasellassie covered the 8k course in a time of 23:47 for a second-place finish, while McElroy clocked 23:54 to come in fifth. For his efforts, Zienasellassie was named the Big Sky Conference Athlete of the Week.  It was his second top-two finish of the year.

And the Sun Devils will likely rest Shelby Houlihan, who finished third in the women’s 6k competition at the Wisconsin Invite with a time of 19:41.  The 5’3″ senior, who finished in fourth place at last year’s Pac-12 Championships, led the ASU women to a 16th place finish.

But Quintana points out that adding the Tempe event this year is really more about giving the ‘B Team’ runners some valuable experience and a chance to be evaluated on their potential for the conference championships:  “It’s also a good thing for everyone to have a chance to solidify their conference rosters in a setting where they’re competing against other 5-6-7-8s on their rosters.”

However, those who follow high school cross country in Arizona will be happy to hear that Rolonda Jumbo will be competing on the NAU women’s team.  This will be her first race of the season.

Jumbo dominated small-school distance running during her prep career at Chinle High School, where she won four state cross country titles.  Now a junior at NAU, she was a national qualifier last year and finished ninth at the Big Sky Championships.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)