Track & Field isn’t considered a “major” sport like football and basketball. And Northern Arizona University is considered more of a ‘minor” Division I school because it participates in the Big Sky Conference and lives in the shadow of its Pac-12 neighbors.
Put the two together and it’s easy to see how major athletic accomplishments at the Flagstaff school can be overlooked.
Case in point: the Lumberjack track & field and cross country programs. For the past four years, NAU’s men’s team has absolutely dominated an entire conference in cross country and both indoor and outdoor track & field.
But, outside of the school’s very loyal fan base, who knew?
The men’s team just wrapped up its fourth straight outdoor track & field conference title, which also makes it their eighth straight T&F conference title when you combine the outdoor and indoor seasons. And then, when you roll cross country into the mix, the ‘Jacks have won four consecutive triple crowns, which combine indoor and outdoor T&F and cross country.
Think about that. This year’s graduating seniors have known nothing but success. Talk about a powerful recruiting class!
Last year, the men’s and women’s teams swept both the indoor and outdoor championships, and this year the men rolled through the outdoor conference schedule undefeated, while the women finished fourth.
Thirteen Lumberjacks qualified for this year’s West Regional in Austin, TX, which just wrapped up today. Four athletes will move on to compete at the NCAA nationals that begin June 10. The group includes Julia Viberg in the women’s discus and Matt McElroy, Futsum Zienasellassie, and Weston Strum in the 5,000 meters.
And, oh yeah…their head coach, Eric Heins, was named the Big Sky Outdoor T&F Coach of the Year.
But Heins’ accomplishment is also easy to overlook since he’s been selected as Coach of the Year so many times. He has won COY honors for outdoor the past four seasons – and picked up a total of 24 COY awards during his college career.
Heins worked as an assistant for the NAU track program from 2001 to 2003, left to take a head coaching job at Southeast Missouri State and then moved to Texas Christian before returning to Flagstaff in 2007. He made an immediate impact upon his return, leading both men’s and women’s cross country teams to top-eight finishes at the NCAA Championships, the first time that had been done in the history of the program.
But it took some late heroics for the men to secure this season’s Big Sky outdoor title. They were behind by 34 points going into the final two events, and still down five with one event left, the 4×400 relay. The team of Vernon Jamison, James Fisher, Taylor Schneider, and Adel al Nasser posted a season-best time of 3:09.56 to win the final event and close out the championships in a tie for the title with Sacramento State – the first time ever that a tie has decided the conference championship.
Jamison, a local athlete from Queen Creek High School, was out front for the ‘Jacks in winning this year’s Big Sky championship. The senior brought home three championships, running a leg of the 4×400 and 4×100 relays and defending his title in the 110 hurdles.
He is just one of a talented group of seniors that have helped build a dominant program in Flagstaff over the past four years, but are graduating and moving on.
But count on the Coach of the Year to find a way to continue the streak.
(Photo: NAU Athletics)