7. NAU Lumberjacks
- Luis Grijalva (3:47 / 4:07 / 8:45 / 14:49)
- Soren Knudsen (4:04 / 8:55)
- Elliot Gindi (1:54 / 4:09 / 9:11 / 14:55)
- Joseph Benson (9:11 / 14:54)
- Joey DeFeo (4:18 / 9:14)
- Jack Shea (4:19 / 9:19 / 15:26)
It may have taken some time, but NAU has become an NCAA cross country and distance running powerhouse. The team is consistently loaded with top-tier individuals and they always find a way to stay relevant on the national scene. It took a lot of patience and a lot development, but the results were well worth it after the Lumberjacks won their first national title in school history last year.
However, all good things must come to an end. Futsum Zienasellassie has now graduated and former head coach Eric Heins has left the program for a job opportunity that his wife is currently pursuing. For most programs, losses like that would be crippling and very difficult to come back from.
Of course, NAU isn't like "most programs". This is a team that simply reloads rather than rebuilds and their six incoming recruits are a pretty good example of that.
The biggest additions to the squad will be Soren Knudsen, Luis Grijalva, and Elliot Gindi who have personal bests of 4:04, 4:07, and 4:09 in the mile...those are times that could instantly make an impact on a Northern Arizona team that needs more mile-oriented athletes. At the same time, this group of three will become a major asset in NAU's effort to continue their success in XC and the long distance events. The loss of Futsum and Weitz is significant and the team title race may not be as clear as it has been in the past. Knudsen, Grijalva, and Gindi don't need to be All-Americans, but if they can step into a scoring role then the Lumberjacks may be able to stay in the team title conversation for 2017.
Joseph Benson is another name that could contribute to the success of this cross country program. With a PR of 14:54, it's clear that he can thrive in the longer distances. He will add to the never-ending depth of NAU which is what has made this program so good for so many years now. It's tough to say when he'll get his chance to breakout, but he will almost certainly be a key scorer on this team no later than his junior year.
Joey DeFeo and Jack Shea may not have personal bests under 15 minutes in the 5k or sub 9 minutes in the two mile, but they have just as much upside as the four recruits mentioned above. Even if these two have to wait a few years to build mileage, they will still provide a great sense of security and insurance in case injuries plague the team or key runners begin to struggle.
Maybe the most important aspect to point out is that NAU has outstanding mentors at their disposal. Experienced upperclassmen like Matthew Baxter, Tyler Day, Andy Trouard, and Cory Glines will be absolutely crucial (and helpful) in the development of these recruits. Having strong and diverse leadership that guilds you through the practices and races is a huge plus. It's certainly a lot easier than having an underclassman put the reputation and success of a program on their shoulders.
There's really not a lot to dislike about this team when you look at the overall picture. NAU has recruits with elite-caliber potential, a talented pool of depth, and an experienced group that the younger guys can learn from. Where could you go wrong? In fact, I think you could make the argument that NAU got snubbed from a higher ranking.
Nonetheless, rankings are meant to be disproven. If there's any team capable of doing that, it's this NAU recruiting class.