Both of the University of Alaska cross country running programs will be represented at the 2022 Division II National Championships on Friday in University Place, Washington.
UAA sophomore Cole Nash is coming off a second-place finish at the NCAA West Regional. He was named the 2022 Great Northwest Athletic Conference Men’s Cross Country Athlete of the Year after winning the race at the conference championships earlier this month.
“The way we kind of structured the season was for this to be the only race that we’re really putting everything into,” Nash said. “Every other race to get ready for this race, so my mindset is just to make it worth it, run as well as I can.”
His teammate Michael Zapherson is a junior transfer from Division I University of North Carolina at Greensboro who earned an at-large bid after a seventh-place finish at the West Regional. This marks his first time making it to nationals at either level, and even though he was surprised he made the cut, he’s excited about the opportunity all the same.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I was making it to nationals about two weeks ago,” Zapherson said. “Now that I’m here, I’ve been having a pretty good season and I’m trending in the right direction.”
His main goal heading into nationals is to earn his first career All-American honors.
“For me, it’s kind of staying relaxed up until the race and then ripping it,” Zapherson said. “I’m just trying to grab one of the All-American spots.
He claimed his toughest race of the season came in the one he ran to get to nationals in the West Regions.
“It was a 10K, so longer distance, and then it was cold and windy,” Zapherson said. “Mentally, it was a tough race, but it ended up being of the most fun races for me.”
For Nash, his most challenging race of the season was the NCAA Division II Pre-Nationals back in late October, where he got to scout some of the top competition from around the country and finished in fourth place.
“It was an all-out, duke-it-out and see who had the most in them at the end,” he said.
While this is Zapherson’s first time heading to the nationals, it marks Nash’s second in a row. Last year it was held in Saint Leo, Florida, and he earned All-American honors after finishing in 27th place.
The climate and terrain in the Gulf Coast of Florida are much different from the environment he will be competing in this year down in University Place, Washington. However, the Littleton, Colorado, native doesn’t have a preference of which he’d rather run in, as long as it’s more arduous for his competition.
“I honestly just prefer whatever’s toughest on everybody else,” Nash said. “I think last year that the heat kind of weeded out a lot of people who couldn’t finish the race because it was too hard. This year, I think it’s gonna be the same thing with the rain and cold. It will kind of just show who’s got the most mental toughness at the end of the day.”
Since this is his first year with the program, Zapherson isn’t as familiar with the top competitors in the men’s division, but Nash knows who will present the most challenge in its pursuit of top finishes. The team’s taking an “everyone is the enemy” approach, and Nash in particular will be gunning for heavy favorites like Dillon Powell of the Colorado School of Mines, who finished 28 seconds ahead of him at Pre-Nationals to claim first place in the race.
Trio of Nanooks are heading to nationals too
While the Seawolves aren’t sending anyone from their women’s team to the NCAA Division II national championships, the University of Alaska Fairbanks will have not one or two but three competing for a title this week.
After claiming three of the top four spots in the women’s race at the NCAA West Region Championship, the terrific trio of Naomi Bailey, Rosie Fordham and Kendall Kramer punched their tickets to nationals with qualifying times within a minute of each other.
Bailey was the first from her team and the female distance runner overall to cross the finish line and win the race outright with a time of 20:53.08. Kramer, who finished first at the GNAC championship and was named GNAC Women’s Cross Country Athlete of the Year, was hot on the trail and finished just five seconds later with a mark of 20:58.47. Fordham came in fourth place by covering the 10K course in 21:13.81. All three earned All-West Region recognition, and this marks the second year in a row that the program is sending three runners to nationals