What a way to go out.
Next spring, Eric Heins will leave the Northern Arizona University cross country program, which he has directed for the past 10 years, with a national championship. Not just any NCAA title, but the school’s first-ever in the sport.
And this championship came with a story-book finish.
The Lumberjacks, who entered yesterday’s NCAA National Championships in Indiana as the unanimous selection as the No. 1 cross country team in the country, left a wake of old records in their wake.
Not only was this the first national title in cross country, but also the Division I school’s first of its kind in any sport. And it was the first NCAA championship for a Big Sky Conference school outside of football.
The team of seven competing athletes in Terre Haute combined to post a winning score of 125 points on a cold, windy day – not unlike the weather they train in at Flagstaff’s 7,000-foot elevation. That total broke the old school mark of 142 points – set 21 years ago.
Thanks to their efforts, NAU also became the first non-Power 5 university to win the cross country title since UTEP accomplished the feat 35 years ago.
Futsum Zienasellassie, a redshirt senior from Indianapolis, was the first NAU runner to cross the finish line, coming in fourth with a time of 29:49.8. Finishing behind him were Matt Baxter, a redshirt junior from New Zealand, in 11th place (30:03.1); Tyler Day in 23rd place (30:13); and Andy Trouard in 37th place (30:23.5).
Day and Trouard are both local recruits. Day is a sophomore who attended Mesquite High School in Gilbert and Tourard is a redshirt junior from Tucson, where he attended Salpointe Catholic.
All four turned in All-America performances. For Zienasellassie, it was his fourth , making him the first NAU cross country runner to become a four-time NCAA All-American. And the group also set another school mark, tying the program record with four top-40 individual finishes at national championships.
Cory Glines finished as the crucial fifth NAU runner, scoring the decisive 66 points needed to move ahead of runner-up Stanford. The redshirt junior claimed 84th place with a time of 30:46.4. The final two Lumberjacks were Nathan Weitz in 95th place and Geordie Beamish right behind in 97th.
Heins, who coaches track & field as well, announced back in April that he would be leaving the program after this season since his wife, Kaci, has taken a job with the NASA Space Center in Houston. His plans are to leave for Texas to join her after the 2o17 outdoor season concludes.
His successor will inherit a program that has established itself as the dominant program in the Big Sky, one that has also made its mark on the national level. The NAU cross country program has consistently been ranked among the nation’s top 10 – three times in the top 5 – and has made nine NCAA Championship appearances.
Coming into this season, Heins had already accumulated 27 Big Sky Coach of the Year honors.
In August, Michael Smith was hired to replace Heins as the new Director of Cross Country and Track & Field, coming on board now in order to make a smooth transition when Heins departs next spring. Smith was hired from Georgetown University where he spent four years, including directing the men’s and women’s cross country and track & field programs during the 2015-16 season.
Heins is familiar with his replacement since Smith lived in Flagstaff for six years, during which time he founded Team Run Flagstaff while working at the NAU Center for High Altitude Training, an Olympic training site for long distance running.