The top performer on a team isn’t always the heart and soul of the program. But junior endurance runner Cole Nash fits the mold of that role for the University of Alaska Anchorage cross country team.
Nash is a four-time All-American between cross country and track and field, a regional champion and the reigning GNAC Men’s Cross Country Athlete of the Year. But his impact on others in the program has been even more profound.
Seawolves associate head coach Chas Davis believes what makes him such an influential leader is that he “walks the talk” and will often put the needs of others ahead of himself.
“For him to have been able to handle that kind of pressure and handle the target on his back and to lead no matter who they are, where they’re coming from, and to be willing to sacrifice himself to some degree, that’s why these men and women look up to him,” Davis said.
Davis said that Nash “is the kind of athlete that every coach hopes for at some point.” Not only has Nash made coaching easier, he also provides an archetype for program success to potential recruits, he said.
“He makes our job so much easier and really helped allow us to recruit the caliber of men that are out here,” Davis said. “He allowed us to generate excitement about the direction this is going.”
UAA recently hosted the Great Northwest Athletic Conference cross country championship for the first time in over two decades, in large part because of how successful this year’s team was over the course of the regular season. The Seawolves had a strong showing at the annual event with Nash finishing third in the men’s race despite being a little hampered by a lingering injury. The men’s team as whole finished in second while the women’s team came in fifth.
“It’s so cool seeing how the team has developed in my time here,” Nash said. “We started with three guys when I got here. Now we’ve got a team of 15 guys, and everyone is just ready to do whatever they can to help each other, so it’s really cool watching it all develop.”
Several of his teammates are grateful for the opportunity to be able to train and compete alongside an elite endurance runner like Nash because it pushes them to be better and gives them a tangible goal to strive for.
Michael Zapherson is a senior in his second year with the program after transferring from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has been Nash’s closest competition on the team and regularly finishes not too far behind him during races, including at the GNAC championship, where he came in sixth place.
“It’s been a really great opportunity,” Zapherson said. “I don’t think that I had a guy on my old team that was that far ahead of me, so it’s been really cool to have somebody who’s like a leader, even though he’s younger than me.”
Despite being the older of the two, Zapherson isn’t too proud to admit that he looks up to Nash and even shapes his personal goals around how well he performs in relation to Nash.
“I can compete with him on a day-to-day basis in practice, and I can kind of gauge how well I’m doing based on how well he’s done in races,” Zapherson said. “It’s been a really cool opportunity for me to see where I am relative to him.”
Freshman Ty Elliott is a hometown student-athlete who was born and raised in Anchorage. He’s no stranger to being part of a highly successful cross country program: Elliott won three team state titles at Grace Christian High and five individual state championships. Still, he appreciates all that Nash provides from a leadership standpoint with his words and actions.
“He’s a leader and it’s really inspiring to see how hard he works and the way he wills us all to be better,” Elliott said.
All the intangibles he brings as a leader while being a fellow competitor simultaneously are “irreplaceable” in the eyes of the coaching staff, Davis said.
Nash “can have these guys prepared for championship season in a way that a coach just isn’t going to have the same effect,” he said.
Up next for Nash and the Seawolves will be the NCAA West Regional Championships down in Monmouth, Oregon, this Saturday.
The top three teams at regionals qualify for Division II nationals in Joplin, Missouri. Another 10 at-large teams from across the nation will be selected for the national championships as well. The top two individuals not on a team that qualifies will go to nationals along with anyone who finished top five not on a qualifying team. A small number of individuals will be selected from across the country for nationals with all at-large selections to be announced Monday.
Last year, Nash and Zapherson qualified individually for nationals, but this year the Seawolves are aiming to qualify as a team.
“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,” Nash said. “Now it’s like we’re running for each other and are trying to go for a team goal above all else.”