When Eric Heins took over the reins of Northern Arizona cross country in 2007, the Lumberjack program was by no means a stranger to NCAA glory. But coming off a down year in which the Big Sky Championship had been wrested away from Flagstaff, a prudent mind might have guessed the best days were behind.
Fast forward to this past October, when Heins and the Lumberjacks soared to unprecedented heights in the Big Sky. For the team, a dominant performance at the Big Sky Championship secured a record sixth-consecutive conference title. For Heins, the season likewise brought a sixth-consecutive Big Sky Men’s Cross Country Coach of the Year award, an extension of the record he had set the previous year.
But for the Heins tenure, there still remained another hill to climb: The Mountain Regional, which Northern Arizona hadn’t won since 2002. That all changed in Ft. Collins, as the Lumberjacks would upset higher-ranked squads from BYU and Colorado to claim the Mountain Region, and so too would Heins earn his first Mountain Region Coach of the Year Award. The Cinderella story would continue to Louisville, where a now tenth-ranked Northern Arizona shined with a fourth place showing at the NCAA Championship, for a most surprising sixth-consecutive top-15 finish.
Northern Arizona’s renaissance under Heins might be the sport’s most dramatic example of consistent success under the leadership of a young head coach, but theirs is far from being the only one. Consider the following emerging coaches who have molded success from struggling cross country programs.
Since a last place NEC finish in his first season at the helm, Brown’s Terriers have slowly climbed out of the conference cellar all the way program’s best NEC finish in 20 years this past season.
The Cowboys’ 2012 Southland Conference championship is the program’s first since 2000.
Fifth in the Patriot League the year before Etters took over, the Mountain Hawks wrapped up a successful 2012 campaign with the program’s first conference title and best showing (8th) in the Mid-Atlantic Regional since 2005.
Just like the women’s team, the Gonzaga men’s 14th place at the 2012 West Regional was a program best.
Seventh in the NEC just a year prior to his hire, Blake’s Blue Devils recently won their fourth-straight NEC title and he his third NEC Men’s Cross Country Coach of the Year award.
The Mean Green recently recorded their highest finish since 2007 and a 13th place finish at the South Central Regional.
The Wolverines runners up finishes at the Big Ten Championship and Great Lakes Regional are the highest since 2008 and quite the turnaround for a team that finished 8th in the Big Ten in 2010.
Placing seventh at Hunter’s first MVC Championship, the Shockers have since finished fourth and, most recently, third.
The Rattlers followed their runners-up finish in Angel’s first MEAC championship with a conference title this season.
Despite carrying five freshmen, Badeaux’s sophomore campaign saw the Cajuns’ best Sun Belt finish since 2004.
Just as he did with the women’s team, Hasenbank helped the Ramblers claim the Horizon League title in just his second season.
In 2012, the Illini earned a 37th national ranking and their highest conference finish since 1996.
USC Upstate has claimed A-Sun titles in both of Smith’s seasons after finishing third in 2010.
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