Vikings, Simon Fraser Lead Duels For Cross Country Titles
Coleman Nash (left) has yet to lose a race this season as a freshman. Olivia Willett has finished no worse than second in three races in 2021.
Coleman Nash (left) has yet to lose a race this season as a freshman. Olivia Willett has finished no worse than second in three races in 2021.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

LACEY, Wash. – It’s a day two years in the making.

After going without a cross country season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference’s top harriers are back together as the GNAC Championships take place on Saturday on the campus of Saint Martin’s University.

In the ever-changing landscape of college athletics, there are many differences since the 10 teams met 24 months ago. Only five of the top-10 runners on the men’s and women’s races are back. The years have seen the emergence of some new contenders for the title, including the Alaska women.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the order at the top. A new-look Western Washington team will vie for its second consecutive conference title while Simon Fraser and Alaska Anchorage will be factors in both races, both individually and in the team competition.

The two-year break, coupled with the lack of the snowy conditions that competitors faced in the 2019 GNAC Championships experienced in Billings, should make for a great day of racing.

Two years after Western Washington and Simon Fraser dueled for the title, both teams looked poised to duke it out for the top two spots once again.

While the Vikings’ lineup looks vastly different than the one that won in 2019, it has proven just as potent. Junior Mac Franks is one of just two athletes left from that team. He has assumed the leadership mantle with three top-10 finishes, including an impressive fifth place at the Roy Griak Invitational. Senior Kaleb Korta adds significant experience having placed 45th at the 2018 Championships for Alaska Anchorage.

Adding to the depth are dynamic freshmen Jeret Gillingham and Kevin McDermott. Gillingham placed 12th at the Griak and 13th at the Bill Roe Classic while McDermott placed 14th two weeks ago in Bellingham.

Simon Fraser is looking for its first conference title thanks to an experienced lineup led by Aaron Ahl. The junior has not lost to a Division II runner in three meets this season and ran a lifetime best of 24:30.6 to win the San Francisco State Invitational in September.  Freshman Charlie Dannatt provides a solid one-two punch with three top-10 finishes.

Further bolstering SFU’s chances are junior Sebastian Brinkman, who placed 13th at the Mike Johnson Classic, and freshman Scott Arndt with three top-20 races on the season.

Alaska Anchorage has reloaded with the addition of Coleman Nash. The freshman has yet to lose a race this season and was a winner by 15 seconds at the Chambers Bay Collegiate Open. Nash complements senior Felix Kemboi, the defending individual champion. Kemboi has three top-10 finishes, headline by placing fifth at Chambers Bay.

Junior Jacob Moos has run second to Nash in all three races and ran a lifetime best of 25:16.1 at Chambers Bay. Also returning to the Seawolves’ team that placed third in 2019 are senior Nickson Koech and junior Titus Kangogo.

Northwest Nazarene looks to blend experience and youth to build upon its fourth-place finish in 2019. Junior Tyler Shea has placed in the top three in each meet this season, winning the Ken Garland Classic on the same course hosting the GNAC Championships. Freshman Dylan Tidwell paces the youth, coming in strong off his 11th-place finish at the Bill Roe Classic.

Senior Trevor Allen, who joins Kemboi as the only returning top-10 finishers from 2019, leads Central Washington. Allen’s season is headlined by a 10th-place finish at the PLU Open and a season-best time of 25:27.7 at the Charles Bowles Invitational.

Montana State Billings is turning some heads thanks to the performance of Ase Ackerman. The junior has four top-four finishes on the season, including a win at the Gage McSpadden Memorial and a fourth-place finish at the Montana Open. Senior Carson Jessop ran 25:29 at the Yellowjacket/Battlin’ Bear Open, marking the first time since 2016 that two MSUB men’s runners have broken 26 minutes.

Saint Martin’s will look to its youth to perform well on its home course. Sophomore Jack Farrell has three top-10 finishes to his credit and helped pace the Saints to a third-place finish at Chambers Bay. Freshman Kainalu Pagente opened his career by winning the Puget Sound Invitational and has three top-15 finishes.

Western Oregon will pin its hopes to juniors Keanu Daos and Miguel Villar. Daos opened the season by winning the Ash Creek Collegiate while Villar led the Wolves with a 35th-place finish at the Lewis Crossover.

Seattle Pacific will be led by senior Colin Boutin, who has three top-15 finishes this season and a best of 26:15 over 8,000 meters. Alaska is led senior Zephan Ozturgut.

The timing may never be better for Simon Fraser to win its first conference championship since 2014. Simon Fraser has won all three meets it has competed in. It’s average margin of victory was 39 points with the team placing all five scoring runners in the top 20 each time.

Junior Olivia Willett has finished no worse than second this season and has not lost to a Division II opponent. She won the season-opening San Francisco State Invitational and was 18 seconds clear of the nearest GNAC competitor at the Bill Roe Classic, where she ran a season-best of 21:48.6.

The consistent group of front-running SFU athletes includes Division I senior transfer Alison Andrews-Paul, juniors Megan Roxby and Emily Chilton and freshman Kate Cameron.

Perennial conference powerhouse Alaska Anchorage returns the GNAC’s most experienced runner in senior Nancy Jeptoo. The 2019 All-American (10th) is the top returning finisher from 2019 and has turned in three top-four performances, led by her second-place finish at the Chambers Bay Collegiate Open.

Adding depth is juniors Joan Kipsanai and Alfin Nyamasyo. Kipsanai placed sixth at the 2019 conference meet and has two top-10 finishes this season. Nyamasyo also has a pair of top-10 finishes while sophomore Bailey Roe posted a 14th-place finish at Chambers Bay.

Western Washington, the defending champion, will have to have a young lineup pull through to take the trophy again in 2021. The Vikings placed a solid sixth at the Roy Griak Invitational, proving their mettle in big races. Freshman Ila Davis led the way with a 27th-place finish. Senior Brittany Aquino ran a team-best 22:55 at the Bill Roe Classic two weeks ago, leading the Vikings to fifth place.

Seattle Pacific will try to overcome injury issues for its third consecutive top-three finish. The Falcons are young but talented. Freshman Annika Esvelt won her first two of her first three collegiate races, running 22:15 for 6,000 meters at the PLU Invitational in September. Freshman Ellie Rising, the 2021 GNAC outdoor 800-meter champion, has a pair of top-four finishes.

Northwest Nazarene was the surprise of the region in 2019, emerging from a sixth-place conference meet to place second at the NCAA West Regional. A high result will be no surprise in 2021 as much of the Nighthawks’ lineup returns.

Sophomore Julia LaMar placed 11th at the 2019 regionals and has a pair of top-three finishes this season, including the win at the EOU Invitational in September. Sophomore Kalen Belton also had a pair of top-three finishes and is well over a minute under her finish time from the 2019 Championships.

This year’s surprise could very well be Alaska. The Nanooks have finished no worse than seventh in their four meets this season, regularly banking the majority of their scoring runners in the top 10. Alaska placed fourth at the Bill Roe Classic, second among GNAC teams and winning a tiebreaker with Western Washington.

Rosie Fordham leads the freshmen-heavy lineup with a quartet of top-four finishes. She led three top-10 finishers for the Nanooks at the Bill Roe Classic, a group that included fellow first-year performers Kendall Kramer and Naomi Bailey. Kramer won the season-opening Blue/Gold Race in August and Bailey won the Seawolf Throwdown in September.

Western Oregon features a pair of title contenders in junior transfers Luz Garcia and Caitlin Heldt. Garcia won her first two races for the Wolves before finishing 11th at the Lewis Crossover. Heldt was solid in her three meets, which included a second-place finish at the Ash Creek Collegiate.

Saint Martin’s looks to freshmen Sara Sabra and Cassidy Walchak-Sloan for top performances on the home course. Both runners have three top-10 finishes this season, with Sabra winning the PLU Open and Walchak-Sloan placing 10th at Chambers Bay.

Experienced junior Kailee Stoppel leads Montana State Billings. Her three top-six finishes include a second-place finish at the Gage McSpadden Memorial in September. Central Washington will be led by junior Kay Lester, who ran a team-best 24:08 at the PLU Open.