Championship Preview: Vikings Set For Title Defense
Western Washington is the reigning GNAC champion in both women's and men's cross country.
Western Washington is the reigning GNAC champion in both women's and men's cross country.

Thursday, October 19, 2023
by Evan O'Kelly

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – After sweeping the men’s and women’s team titles at the 2022 GNAC Cross Country Championships and being unanimously selected to repeat the feat this fall, Western Washington is the team to beat at Saturday’s championship meet hosted by University of Alaska Anchorage at Kincaid Park.

The Viking men rose as high as No. 10 in the USTFCCCA national rankings, and enter the championship week ranked No. 12 on the men’s side and No. 15 on the women’s side in the latest poll. WWU figures to face stern competition from the meet hosts, as Alaska Anchorage’s men jumped to No. 20 in the national rankings – their highest position of the 2023 season – a week prior to the championship race.

Simon Fraser stands as a formidable title challenger on both the women’s and men’s sides, with the Red Leafs being two years removed from their own sweep of the titles. SFU has been on the cusp of the national rankings on the men’s side all season long, with both teams steadily checking in towards the middle of the pack in the USTFCCCA west region rankings.

The Alaska Nanook women brought the conference its greatest individual successes in 2022 and were recognized in the preseason coaches poll with a fourth-place prediction. Saint Martin’s and Western Oregon both also have strong competitors on the women’s side that could threaten to dethrone the Vikings.


Although a 1-through-14 finish by the WWU women at the Puget Sound Invitational came at a meet that lacked a full field of competition, it put on full display the Vikings’ incomparable depth. Sophomore Ashley Reeck has been the team’s top performer this fall, claiming GNAC Runner of the Week after winning that meet before running her collegiate-best 6k time of 21:40.7 at the Lewis Crossover where she placed 18th. The Vikings’ most recent meet, unlike their early sweep, did provide a stern test of their competitive ability and they came through with flying colors. WWU finished sixth among a field of 33 teams on Oct. 7, vaulting the Vikings to a No. 15 national ranking entering the GNAC Championships.

Read More: Vikings Primed To Defend GNAC Titles In Alaska (WWU Preview)

Like Reeck, Ila Davis recorded a 6k PR of 22:17.5 at the Lewis Crossover and has prior GNAC Championships experience placing 14th at the 2021 meet. Mia Crocker and Sophie Wright are both back for the Vikings after earning all-conference last season, finishing seventh (21:30.0) and eighth (21:39.6), respectively at the 2022 championships.

Simon Fraser might be the team best equipped to give the deep WWU a run for its money, with returning all-conference runner Grace Chalk once again heading up the bunch. Chalk’s top 6k time this fall of 22:17.0 came at the Pacific Lutheran Invitational where she raced to a fourth-place finish. Charlotte Prangley, Milena Kalisch and Ella Marion are three key runners who return to the team with GNAC Championship experience, while Kate Cameron and newcomer Selin Tasdemir have played a key role on the squad this fall.

For the second year in a row, the Alaska Nanooks boast a roster that features three realistic individual title contenders in Kendall Kramer, Naomi Bailey and Rosie Fordham. Kramer and Bailey crossed the finish line in tandem at both the 2022 GNAC Championships and 2022 NCAA West Region Championships, with Kramer claiming the conference crown (20:37.0) and Bailey taking the regional title (20:53.1). Fordham meanwhile has picked up two victories this fall, winning the Seawolf Throwdown on Aug. 26 (18:10.5, 5k) and the San Francisco State Invitational on Oct. 6 (21:25.9).

The majority of the GNAC women’s teams feature lead runners who will all be in the front pack mix on Saturday. The conference’s top finisher at what was perhaps the most competitive race of the fall in the Lewis Crossover was Saint Martin’s junior Cassidy Walchak-Sloan. The sixth-place finisher from last year’s conference meet posted a 6k time of 21:40.6 to finish in 17th among a field of 316 runners, making her a viable threat to challenge for the GNAC individual title. Saint Martin’s will rely dually on Walchak-Sloan and junior Elke Wijkmans, who took 38th place at the Lewis Crossover with a time of 22:14.6, to fuel their positioning in the team standings.

Western Oregon’s hopes to compete with the conference’s top teams start with the pace set by veteran Caitlin Heldt, who placed third on her home course in 2022 (21:09.1). Heldt was victorious at the Mike Johnson Classic on Sept. 22 (21:15.0), and has finished in the top-10 in all three of the meets she has participated in this fall. Riley Smith is coming off a standout freshman season that saw her finish 13th at last year’s conference meet (21:58.2), and she enters this year’s championship meet on the heels of a 20th-place finish at the San Francisco State Invitational on Oct. 6 (22:56.3).

Quietly putting together a notable season has been NNU sophomore Morgan Erler, who narrowly missed out on all-conference recognition with a 14th-place finish at last year’s GNAC Championships (21:59.1). Erler has hit PRs in the 4k, 5k, and 6k distances this fall, with the highlight of the season being a win at the Whitman College Invitational on Sept. 30 (21:45.6). Olivia Klein and Keelin Stewart are two more returning Nighthawks who participated in last year’s GNAC Championships.

UAA senior Nell Baker is set to compete in her first GNAC Cross Country Championship, and is coming off her top 6k time of the year at 21:57.7 for a 28th-place finish at the Lewis Crossover on Oct. 7. The Seawolves have six women’s runners who competed at last year’s GNAC Championships, with Elle Stevens taking 32nd (22:42.7) and Jordan Strausbaugh 33rd (22:49.3) in 2022.

Seattle Pacific junior Annika Esvelt finished in the top-10 in all three races she ran during the fall, including a victory at the Emerald City Open (22:25.8) in her most recent event. Esvelt placed 18th at last year’s GNAC Championships (22:14.5) and was the Falcons’ top finisher from a season ago.

Montana State Billings returns the likes of Carey Berendsen, Alahna Lien and Madeline Severson with experience from last year’s championship race. In similar fashion, Central Washington features returners Madison Thompson, Lauren Thompson and Olivia Wyatt who all ran at the 2022 championships.

Read More: Wildcats Travel To Alaska For GNAC Championships (CWU Preview)


A 10th-place finish by Coleman Nash (24:15.5) among 327 runners at the Lewis Crossover on Oct. 7 indicated that the reigning conference champion and All-American is the likely favorite to repeat in 2023, but he will not be without challengers on Saturday. Central Washington’s Johan Correa has won all three of his races in his debut cross country season, Simon Fraser’s Sebastian Brinkman has finished second or third at all three of his meets this fall, and Kevin McDermott is the top runner on a dangerous looking Western Washington squad.

The Seawolves have finished second to the Vikings in both of their head-to-head meetings this fall, with WWU winning the Bill Roe Classic on Sept. 23 and UAA finishing second, and WWU placing fourth at the Lewis Crossover on Oct. 7 and UAA following in sixth. A year removed from a 14th-place finish at the NCAA Championships, the Vikings return enough depth to make a title repeat likely. Alongside McDermott, whose 8k time of 24:16.2 at the Lewis Crossover was a PR, WWU has Andrew Oslin (65th at NCAA Championships, 30:54.7), Ryan Clough (88th at NCAA Championships, 31:06.8), Jeret Gillingham (95th at NCAA Championships, 31:13.2) and Jalen Javurek (151st at NCAA Championships, 31:54.3) back on the roster in 2023.

A GNAC Newcomer of the Year award for Michael Zapherson was no fluke in 2022, as the senior has upheld his standard of excellence in 2023 to bolster the Seawolves’ depth. Zapherson enters the GNAC Championships coming off a 16th-place finish (24:27.8) at the Lewis Crossover, after hinting he could compete on a national stage with a 55th-place finish (30:47.3) at the 2022 NCAA Championships. The Seawolves don’t return any other top-25 finishers from last year’s conference meet, as they’ll lean on the likes of John Peckham, Zachary Kohler and George Payne to give the Vikings a run for their money.

Read More: Transfers Key To Title Chase (UAA Preview)

Brinkman missed All-American status by two positions last year, finishing 42nd (30:35.8) at the NCAA Championships after placing fifth at the conference meet. Although SFU lost 2022 NCAA West Region champion Charlie Dannatt, its depth has been bolstered with strong fall performances from the likes of Ephrem Mekonnen, Scott Arndt, Aiden Good, and Henry Ruckman-Utting.

All eyes have been on Correa this fall, with the leading candidate for GNAC Newcomer of the Year winning his debut race at the Puget Sound Invitational (15:00.4, 5k) on Sept. 2 and never looking back. He followed with a victory at the Pacific Lutheran Invitational in 24:23.7), and most recently claimed the title at the Emerald City Open in 25:07.6. Correa beat WWU’s Samuel Lingwall by 0.01 seconds to win the UPS title, before edging SFU’s Brinkman by 0.08 seconds at the PLU meet, evidencing that he figures to be with the lead pack throughout Saturday’s meet.

Saint Martin’s boasts one of the conference’s top runners in senior Isaac Cortes, who just missed all-conference honors in 2022 with a 12th-place finish (24:35.0). Cortes hasn’t missed a beat this fall, starting with an eighth-place finish (18:16.6, 6k) at the Ash Creek Collegiate on Sept. 8 which was the top mark by a GNAC runner. Michael Harwell and Kainalu Pagente are two more Saints to keep an eye on as they’ll compete at their second straight conference meet.

Much like his female teammate in Erler, Brody Kemble has been a fixture at the top of the Northwest Nazarene lineup in 2023. Kemble was the second freshman across the line at the 2022 GNAC Championships in 27th place (25:23.4), and has followed that up with PRs in the 6k, 7k, and 8k so far this season. Kemble’s top performance was a victory at the Cascade Collegiate Conference Preview on Sept. 15 (18:25.5). Quincy Ellis and Aaron Heberlein are the Nighthawks’ other top returning runners who competed at the 2022 championship race.

Sure to compete for GNAC Freshman of the Year will be Western Oregon’s Kanoa Blake, who burst onto the scene in his collegiate debut with a win at the Mike Johnson Classic (24:41.7) on Sept. 22. The Wolves return Easton Pomrankey, Logan Parker and Kolby Spink who each contributed at the championship race in 2022.

Seattle Pacific senior Brennan LeBlanc is peaking at the right moment, coming off his highest placing in a collegiate cross country meet with fourth place at the Emerald City Open on Oct. 7 (26:29.8). LeBlanc’s top 8k time of the season was 15:32.9 at the Puget Sound Invitational, as he looks to set the tone as the Falcons’ top returning performer from the 2022 GNAC Championships.

The biggest bright spot of the fall for Montana State Billings has been the performance of freshman Andrew Rush, who broke onto the scene with a sixth-place finish (19:25.8, 6k) at the Gage McSpadden Invitational in his debut race. MSUB will lean on veterans Jackson Bailey, Bryant Edgerton and Jordi Peiro who have all competed in previous conference championship races.

One thing on the side of the Alaska Nanooks is returning depth from last year’s championship race, with sophomore Ryan Owens being the top finisher who is back on the squad. Alaska has relied on newcomers Finn Morley, Ben Dohlby and Jace Peters, who have regularly run in the lineup in 2023. Senior Nolan Earnest is another Nanook returner that the team will look to for experience on Saturday.