Northern Arizona track and field will get its unique 2021 season underway Saturday as it heads to a meet in Phoenix with the Grand Canyon Lopes.
While the meet will be outdoors, only indoor events will be take place Saturday, including the 60-meter dash, 60m hurdles and other sprint events through the 5000m. Shot put, pole vault and high jump will begin on the field at 11 a.m., with track events kicking off at noon with the 60m hurdles.
More than 30 NAU athletes will compete in the season opener, including nearly 20 qualifiers from the 2020 Big Sky Conference Indoor Championships. For many members of the program, it has been nearly a year since competing against another program. With the indoor season halted at the NCAA title meet and the outdoor season canceled, the Big Sky Championships at the end of February is the program's most recent meet.
For the men, sprinters Carter Bracken, Karsen Burke and Wil Peralta, throwers Parker Joens and Jacob Kaufman, and jumper Jack Normand will begin their 2021 seasons after reaching conference a year ago.
Bracken recorded a sixth-place finish in the 60m hurdles while also running a leg on the sixth-place 4x400m relay team. Burke and Peralte also competed in the 60m hurdles at Big Sky. Joens earned a bronze medal in the shot put a year ago, while Kaufman scored in weight throw with a fifth-place finish. Normand recorded a sixth-place finish in high jump and a ninth-place result in triple jump.
On the women's side, multiple Big Sky medalists will compete in Phoenix. Jada Jackson, a second-place finisher in the 60m, will begin her season after also qualifying for the 200m and running a leg of the 4x400m at conference last season. The third-place finisher in the conference's 400m, Miracle Onyemaobi returns to the track after also taking fourth in the 200m and joining Jackson on the 4x400m team.
Another member of the program's 4x400m last year, Melanie Loff took second in the 800m and earned a gold as a member of the program's distance medley team a year ago. Chloe Barylski also earned gold with the distance medley team in addition to her run in the 60m, while Madeline Wilson rounded out the 4x400m team while competing in high jump and finishing seventh in the pentathlon.
Other Big Sky qualifiers set to compete include sprinters Kenya Coburn and Marissa Milos, throwers Alaina Diggs and Carly Watts, and jumpers Jenna Figueroa, Kenashalee Kerr and Courtney Weisenberger.
Nearly 21 months removed from the last time the Big Sky awarded its women's tennis title, things look a bit different for both the conference and the Lumberjacks.
Trimmed down to nine programs from 11, the Big Sky moved to a divisional format for the 2021 spring season. Meanwhile, just two Lumberjacks remain on the roster from the 2019 championship year as the program looks to defend its conference crown.
Among the returners are seniors Ellie Millard and Madi Moore, while sophomores Mimi Bland and Elinor Beazley look to experience their first postseason as Lumberjacks. With four newcomers filling out the roster, NAU is excited to see how its newly constructed group will perform on the court.
"We're hoping for a great season ahead, not only practicing but finally stepping in to compete," Lumberjacks head coach Ewa Bogusz said.
The Lumberjacks open their regular season with a doubleheader against the Dixie State Trailblazers Saturday at the Aquatic and Tennis Complex. Scheduled to begin the day at 9 a.m., the teams will take a break before playing the second match at 2 p.m.
The two matches open a 16-match regular-season schedule as NAU has two months to prepare for its crucial stretch of Big Sky matches.
Separated into north and south divisions this season, the Big Sky will send just four teams to its conference tournament hosted at Phoenix Tennis Center on May 1 and 2. With the top two teams in the two divisions qualifying for the postseason, the Lumberjacks will fight for a pair of berths with Sacramento State, Idaho State and Weber State.
With the four schools making up the South Division this season, the two conference favorites will square off late in the schedule. With six first-place votes and 62 points overall, NAU topped the poll for the third straight year. South Division rival Weber State landed second with one first-place vote and 55 points, with Eastern Washington rounding out the top three with two first-place votes and 52 points.
The Lumberjacks open their three-match conference slate when they travel to Sacramento on March 20 before hosting Idaho State less than a week later on March 26. With Weber State's two conference matches also landing before its trip to Flagstaff, the April 17 tilt could decide the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the south.
After opening the season with a pair of matches against Dixie State this Saturday, NAU will also host four other nonconference opponents in Utah State, Wyoming, New Mexico and Grand Canyon while also remaining in the state for matches with Arizona State, Arizona and Gonzaga.
The Lumberjacks will also travel to Las Vegas to face UNLV, stop in Stockton on the trip to Sacramento and face New Mexico State and UTEP in El Paso, Texas.
When NAU does step on the court Saturday, it will be the collegiate debut for freshmen Ava Neyestani and Gina Dittmann while Bland and Beazley compete in their ninth and 10th matches as Lumberjacks following their abbreviated freshman campaigns.
With so little experience on the roster this season, Bogusz said the team's culture during her tenure will be crucial in preparing everyone for the late-season run through the conference and hopefully into the conference tournament in Phoenix.
"If we feel prepared and we work hard enough, we should feel good about stepping on the court," Bogusz said. "That's what we are going to go for. With that said, it is different, and we have got to perform."