On Saturday the NAU Cross Country team competed at the Big Sky Conference Championships in Pocatello, ID. The young women’s team finished 3rd and the men won their 5th consecutive title. Below are Coach Heins’ thoughts from the races.
Pocatello, Idaho -- the setting for the 2011 Big Sky Cross Country Championships
The 2011 edition of our women’s team entered the season with high hopes and a lot of new, young members that brought a great energy to the program. We have made some great strides this year to get back to being a major player in the Big Sky Conference, Mountain Region and national stage. Heading into this weekend, we were focused on one thing – winning the Big Sky Conference Championship. We all knew that it would not be an easy task looking at the rest of the conference, but we did not back down from the challenge.
In golf the wisdom says to compete against the course, not your opponent. This past weekend, we tried to implement that strategy as we would be running on one of the toughest cross country courses we would ever see. We wanted to get out into a good spot up front before the course narrowed down and the long hill came into play. We did that perfectly and were in the thick of the team race throughout the competition. It was clear to me that Weber State and Idaho State were running first and we were in third after the first 3000 meter loop and unfortunately we could not make up the ground over the last hilly 2000 meters. Our hats go off to Weber State and Idaho State as they ran superbly and on this day were simply better than we were.
Our women’s team is made up of three “middle distance types” in Haley, Agnes and Caroline and this course did not suit their strengths, yet they still competed very well and all finished in the top half of the race. At NAU even when we do not win, we should expect ourselves to run in the top half and we accomplished that. Caroline also showed her toughness as she ran the entire race with a thorn stuck in her shoe that had pushed through into the ball of her foot. I got the same thing during our shake out the day before and had to stop to take it out because it felt like a nail was sticking into my foot, so I know exactly how she was feeling. I have no idea how she finished the way she did.
3rd Kortnee Burton and 10th Rochelle Kanuho
We also had two All-Conference finishers in Senior Kortnee Burton and Junior Rochelle Kanuho. Kortnee finished 3rd to back up her 2nd place finish from 2009 and Rochelle came away with a respectable 10th place finish after dealing with some shin pain the last month. We also had two of our freshman run solid races, which should give each of them more confidence heading into the Mountain Regional in two weeks. Lauren Justus showed that she is one of the top Freshman in the Conference with a 25th placing and Kylee Kieser made a strong move over the last 1000 meters in order to finish 28th.
Ten years ago, I started my coaching career at Northern Arizona University as a graduate assistant and the first Big Sky Championships I was a part of was hosted at Idaho State University. That year our men’s team was beat by a very good Montana State team, that went on to finish 11th in the NCAA National Championships. Our men were obviously beat by a good team, but we had the potential to win that Big Sky Championships, as we would later finish fourth in the country that same year. Every year before the Conference championships I remind my teams that they cannot take the Big Sky lightly and use 2001 team as my example why.
This year was no different; we knew that Idaho State had a very challenging course and that if anything would even the playing field it would be that course. We also knew that Weber State was running well and that Coach Pilkington would have them prepared well and challenge us for the title.
As I reflected on our performance at Wisconsin I felt that we needed to get better at working together through the beginning and middle of the race. I felt that if we could do that our last few thousand meters would be much more positive than they were at Wisconsin. I was not too concerned about whether we had the individual champion or not, but whether we could be patient the first half of the race, especially on such a tough course, where a fast first lap could mean a painfully slow last lap.
I felt that we addressed a couple of those issues in training and had a solid two weeks of workouts. We set up our training so that the guys could work on faster pace reps, but also learn to run through that pain that inevitably hits you three-quarters of the way into a race. I presented my race strategy to the guys and they could not have executed it any better.
Two weeks ago at the Adidas Wisconsin Invitational we went from 5th to 8th over the last 3000 meters. This weekend we went from second place after the first 3000m to winning our historic 5th straight conference title. This was accomplished over the last 5000m and I believe we gained a lot of confidence from this race. Diego and Jordan were not in 1st and 2nd place until the last 2000 meter loop. Matt, Tim and Andrew all worked together through 5000m until Matt and Tim gradually put some distance between them and Andrew. Caleb Hoover was the top freshman finisher and also ran his best race, since his opener at the George Kyte Invitational.
2011 Big Sky Cross Country Champions
I have felt all year that this team is top-10 caliber and if we get a little better, we can make another run at the podium on November 21st. This race was a huge step in that progression. We are not a team made up of high school All-Americans, but a group of guys focused on the same goal and willing to put in the work to get there. Our fitness and confidence has made a big jump over the last two weeks and if we can execute our race strategy in our next two races as well as we did this past weekend, we will finish the 2011 season with a great feeling.
The men’s victory marks their 8th Big Sky Cross Country title in the last 9 years, and 16th since 1992. 2011 was also the 7th time an NAU athlete won the race individually (Jon Cardenas 2005, Lopez Lomong 2006-2007, David McNeill 2008-2010, Diego Estrada 2011) . Perhaps more impressive is that this was the 5th straight year the men have finished 1-2 individually.
After the conference championship weekend, the women’s team is now ranked 9th in the Mountain Region and the men’s team ranked 3rd. The men’s team moved up to 12th overall in the country.
Full results and recap can be found on NAUAthletics.com.
Our six all-conference award winners