Ascendance of Quinnipiac’s Zaffina to NCAA Regional another milestone in rise of Bobcats’ distance running


Courtesy of Quinnipiac Athletics

Quinnipiac junior Alessandra Zaffina won her third-consecutive MAAC steeplechase title in 2023, running 10:43.36 for the win.

Cameron Levasseur, Sports Editor

It takes a certain amount of grit to race seven laps around a 400-meter track at full speed. 

And that’s before you throw in two-and-half foot hurdles and a conveniently placed 12-foot water pit. 

The latter additions make steeplechase perhaps the most unconventional event in track and field. But it’s where Quinnipiac junior Alessandra Zaffina has made a living for the past three seasons, yet again etching her name into the Bobcats’ record books by competing at NCAA East Regional in Jacksonville, Florida, on May 27. 

“I had a pretty good mindset going into it,” Zaffina said. “I was like this is my chance to see what I have, and why not just go out there and do what I can and have fun with it?”

Zaffina finished 11th in her heat and 28th overall in 10:32.55, two places higher than her seed and 40 seconds shy of heat and regional winner Olivia Markezich of Notre Dame, who went on to claim the NCAA title in the event two weeks later. 

While on par with the field, this performance was slightly disappointing for Zaffina, but she recognized its importance as a learning experience moving forward. 

“I definitely would have liked to perform a little better, and I think now having that experience under my belt, I know that level of competition,” Zaffina said. “At the end of the day, all those girls that I race, they’re athletes just like me and I shouldn’t be putting anyone in that race on a pedestal. I deserve to be there just as much as any of them did.”

Zaffina became the second Quinnipiac athlete in program history to compete in the event on a national stage and the first since 2009, just the 10th Bobcat to ever qualify for an outdoor regional.

Her ascendance signals an upward trajectory for Quinnipiac distance running as a whole. The women’s cross country team won the MAAC title in the fall, and this year’s group promises to be better, one that program director Carolyn Martin calls, “probably the most talented team that we’ve ever had.”

Zaffina is among those leading that charge. She has two years of eligibility remaining in cross country and hopes to use them to reach higher than any Quinnipiac team before.

“Honestly, potentially qualifying for NCAA’s in cross country should be a reasonable goal that we could do if we all work together and have a positive mindset,” she said.

Quinnipiac women’s cross country celebrates winning its first MAAC title since 2015 in Loudonville, New York, on Oct. 29, 2022. (Courtesy of Quinnipiac Athletics)

The top two teams automatically qualify from each of the nine regional championship meets each year, plus an additional 13 teams taken from the outliers. 

The Bobcats finished 12th in a 37-team field in 2022, but placed three in the top 65 and all five runners who scored finished within the top 100. Making that leap would be difficult, but it’s certainly not impossible.

“We have a really compact and deep team right now. They’re all around the same level,” Martin said. “We need a few of them to really step up so we get some what I call ‘low sticks.’ Most of the really good teams in our region have one or two low sticks where they can get a girl in the top-10 in our region. That’s what it’s going to take.”

Each jump in placing, each second off a time puts them that much closer to that goal. And the closer you get, the more reasonable it seems. 

“For me, trying to get to the top five in our region would be a great goal,” Martin said. “And then if you’re top five in the region, you’re in the hunt … we’ve got to go hunt for it, we’ve got to go see what we can do as a team.”

But the path toward that hunt is not strictly physical. It doesn’t come down to who can run the most offseason miles or clock the most impressive splits in a workout. As much as running is a physical sport, it’s also mental. And on the biggest stage, that means everything.  

Zaffina knew this — it’s what allowed her to break the school record in the steeplechase (again) at Penn Relays in April and ultimately qualify for the NCAA East Regional. 

“The year before I had went to Penn and I was so nervous, I was like completely a mess,” Zaffina said.  “I was like, ‘I don’t think I belong here,’ and totally self sabotaging myself just from my mindset … So coming into this year at Penn, I was like, ‘I want to rewrite that story, I don’t want to have those bad memories with this meet.’”

She ran 10:21.22 that day at Franklin Field, dropping her own school record by 11 seconds. A week later and 150 miles west, Zaffina ran 10:43.36 to win the MAAC title in the event, her third straight. 

The common denominator in both those races? Experience. NCAA Regionals was a different story, a new height she had never previously reached. One few Bobcats have. It’s hard to not look around and put the top talent on a pedestal.

“I think the first time you go … you think everyone is so much better than they are,” Martin said. “They’re not superhuman, and it is realistic and you can do it because you got there. And once you’re at that level, anything can happen and anyone can be beaten.”

“I think she realized that once she got out there, and so immediately after the race she was like ‘I could’ve gone harder, I wish I knew,’ and I’m like ‘yeah, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,’ but you can’t know until you do it until you’re there competing in the moment. And now I think that’s going to give her that much more fire for next year.” 

Now with that experience in tow, Zaffina has the opportunity to use it going forward, not only to her own benefit, but to her team’s as well. 

“I hope it inspires everyone else to try to do their best and try to get to that level, I want to have friends there, teammates there when I go again,” Zaffina said. “I think we definitely have a lot of girls that are super skilled and deserve to be there.”

And as Martin said: once you’re there, anything can happen.