It’s been more than 20 years since the inaugural Great Northwest Athletic Conference cross country regional championship was held in the Last Frontier. Now, the University of Alaska Anchorage will host the annual event this Saturday at Kincaid Park before the Seawolves cross country team heads to the NCAA West Regional for a bid to qualify for Division II nationals.
This rare occurrence was made possible by the resurgence of UAA’s cross country program after a few down years. Significant reductions in state funding, the global COVID-19 pandemic and the retirement of longtime coach Michael Friese all contributed to the drop in their success.
“This is the right year for us to be hosting this meet because this is, hands down, the best place the program has been in since 2019, and a lot has changed since then,” UAA cross country associate head coach Chas Davis said.
The Seawolves were once a powerhouse program, claiming seven straight GNAC titles from 2010 to 2016. Now they’ve quickly emerged as a resurgent contender on the men’s side in particular, thanks largely to the type of runners they’ve been able to bring in via the transfer portal over the past two years.
“It’s been fun to be able to rebuild this thing in the right direction with people that are excited about what we’re doing here and a great fit for the school, a great fit for the community, and build it with Alaskans and just really good people overall,” Davis said. “(I’m) really proud of what this group has done and committed and sacrifice and work towards to be at this moment.”
UAA already had a resident All-American on the roster in Coleman Nash, who has been one of the best Division II distance and endurance runners in the country over the past two years. The first new recruit they brought in through the transfer portal was senior Michael Zapherson, who previously competed for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
The two of them are leading the charge for the revamped Seawolves and are projected to be among the top finishers this weekend.
“It’s a way different atmosphere than in the past,” Nash said. “The whole idea is that we’re going to run the race for the team and not run the race for ourselves. The past couple years it was we’re going to run for the team, but we know we aren’t going to be in the position to win. Now it’s like, we’re running for each other and are trying to go for team goal above all else.”
Zapherson didn’t know what to expect last year because even though they had a “pretty solid team,” the group dealt with injuries.
“This year, things seem different,” he said. “We’re able to keep everyone healthy and have a really solid squad. We put together some really good races, and being on the top end of the team and watching it grow has been really satisfying.”
Weather, terrain could give Seawolves the upper hand
In cross country, hosting a meet doesn’t always give the home team the upper hand, but in this case, Davis believes “it probably will be a home-field advantage.”
“Typically, collegiate cross country courses are very flat and very almost not cross country,” he said. “They’re usually well-manicured, and the people in charge like them to be as flat and even as possible. Our course is not that, so I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at how challenging the course is and where we’ve been able to work out every other week throughout the season.”
Since they’re prepared to conquer the course and know what to expect, several runners are even more optimistic about their odds of success this weekend.
“We’ve been running workouts on it all year, and I think we’re all very ready to have the home course (advantage),” Nash said. “Hopefully, that’s a big difference maker.”
Ty Elliott is a sophomore from Anchorage who attended and graduated from Grace Christian School, a perennial power on the prep cross country scene. He has enjoyed being a part of the resurgence of his hometown program and getting to know his new teammates.
“We have a lot of people from all over the (United States), so to be able to meet all of them and go to practice with them every day is a unique experience,” Elliott said. “I’m really thrilled that I get to be a part of it.”
He believes that his lifetime of experience living and running in Alaska will give him an edge on Saturday, especially if conditions begin to deteriorate and the temperature drops.
“I’ve had some of my better performances in the cold, so that gives me a little confidence boost going into this,” Elliott said.
Fifth-year graduate student Nell Baker is one of the newcomers on the women’s side. She is originally from Seattle and transferred from the University of Idaho, and expects to have an advantage as well.
“A lot of people don’t know what they’re getting themselves into when they come up here, so I’m excited to show them what Alaska is all about and run a really hard course,” Baker said. “I’m hoping for snow and all Alaska has to offer. The colder and tougher the conditions are, the better we’ll do as a team since we’re used to it.”
She is “very excited to be part of a growing team” and believes that the men’s program is a “perfect example of what can be done” when a program takes full advantage of the transfer portal and brings in seasoned runners who are older and more mature.
“It’s so cool to see how the team has developed during my time here,” Nash said. “We started with three guys when I got here, and now we have a team of 15 guys, and everyone is ready to do whatever they can to help each other.”
UAA sells itself on the recruiting trail
Davis and his fellow coaches don’t have to try that hard or come up with a great sales pitch for prospective recruits they hope to bring in.
The Seawolves can offer those student-athletes looking for a program to begin or extend their respective collegiate careers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that maybe only their sister school in the Interior can come close to offering.
“This actually is an opportunity unlike any other,” Davis said. “It’s not for everyone, but for those that Alaska is for and for those that (cross country running) is for, Alaska is very much their thing. They will not get another opportunity like this to be in this place and compete for championships.”
Not only will their recruits get to compete for championships but they also will regularly compete against the highest level of competition at the NCAA Division II level.
“We have the opportunity to compete with the best, and in a few years, our goal is to certainly be winning a national championship,” Davis said. “That is a very rare opportunity, and to be able to do it in a place like this and the adventure that it comes with.”
After earning her undergraduate degree, Baker had a year of eligibility left, and she was looking for a place that could offer a new adventure, as well as a good academic institution, to further her educational goals.
“Alaska is a place that not a lot of people get the opportunity to go visit, so I figured, why not go run for a really cool team in a really cool environment and also get my master’s degree,” Baker said.
Having grown up in Asheville, North Carolina, which is less than a three-hour drive from where he’d attended college, Zapherson knew that if he didn’t come up to the 49th state to compete, he might never get another opportunity to experience the lifestyle and gorgeous scenery that comes with it.
“They sent me an email and told me they’d fly me up here, and I was like, why not? It’d be a free trip to Alaska at the very least,” he said. “It worked because I came up here and fell in love with Alaska.”
UAA’s real estate and property management degree program was also a major draw in his decision to become a Seawolf.
“That’s something I’ve been looking for since high school, so to have the ability to study that at a school where I got recruited to run was a huge opportunity for me,” Zapherson said.