Among the elite athletics of the University of North Carolina

The following story appears in the latest issue of Born & Bred – a magazine provided as a benefit to Rams Club members who support Carolina student athletes. For more information on how you can support our student athletes, visit

By Andrew Stilwell

At Carolina, the term “student athlete” carries additional weight. Student-athletes for Carolina’s 28 varsity sports not only excel on the field, they also face the rigorous academic burden of attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While many Carolina athletes excel in both fields, they are men’s track and field and cross-country runners Will Coogan and men’s lacrosse midfielder PJ Zinsner truly qualifies as the “best of the best” for being two of Carolina’s most recent Elite 90 award winners.

In 2010, the NCAA created the award, which is given to recognize the true essence of the student athlete. The award honors the individual who has reached the pinnacle of competition at the national championship level in their sport while attaining the highest academic standard among their peers. The Elite 90 is awarded each year to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative GPA who competes at the finals venue for each of the NCAA’s 90 championships.

In practice, it is the ideal award for a Carolina student-athlete because it not only focuses on a championship pedigree, but also on excellence in the classroom. Since the award’s inception, a Tar Heel has won the award 15 times, good for the third most NCAA Division I athletic programs and more than double all other ACC member institutions.

For both Coogan, a junior major in biology, and Zinsner, a senior double major in economics and math, a commitment to science ties into Carolina student-athlete territory.

“I think the great opportunity to come to a school like Carolina humbled me a little and I want to take full advantage of that,” Coogan said. “I wanted to learn how to adjust my lifestyle so I can keep trying to work hard and achieve some goals that I wanted to achieve in school.”

“I started taking academics really seriously in high school,” added Zinsner. “I knew that if I wanted to play for a top program like Carolina, I had to be prepared, and I took that with me to college. There is also a certain level of competitiveness that I have in academia where I want to be the best. “

That competitive spirit may come naturally to Zinsner — he is the third of four children, and all of his siblings have played or currently participate in collegiate track and field. His older brother and older sister played golf and lacrosse at Yale, and his younger sister currently plays lacrosse at Holy Cross.

Both student-athletes commend their teammates and coaches for continuing to instill their drive and discipline in the classroom.

“I think I’ve heard some of our coaches say, ‘How you do everything, you do everything.’ It’s a pretty common buzzword, but I take it to heart a little bit,” said Zinsner, who has a 3.98 grade point average. “It’s about being consistent every day and knowing it’s yours all around line will hurt if you take a day off, both in school and lacrosse, take a practice day, or fade out in class and not record anything.” That perspective has helped me really focus on what I’m doing each day .”

Coogan, whose GPA is just 1/100 point higher at 3.99, agrees with the sentiments.

“The most important thing is that you use your time consciously. This is our whole team. Coach Miltenberg really wants us to be deliberate and purposeful. Those are two of our biggest guiding principles,” he said. “I think that attitude towards athletics and cross country seeps into my other aspects of life. It helps me transfer that attitude to academics, relationships, and anything else I want to apply it to.

Both student-athletes have similar schedules in their respective sports – morning practice and classes from noon to afternoon, leaving evenings free for study and coursework. But according to Coogan, “time out” is just as important for physical recovery.

“During the week I have fewer of these large blocks of time that I can use. I think it’s important to use Saturday and Sunday efficiently,” he said. “A big thing about athletics and cross country is that what you do outside of training is just as important as what you do in training. Rest and things like that. So it’s not too beneficial to stay up until midnight every night. I had to make decisions beforehand about where it was: ‘Okay, I could stay up an hour to study, but honestly, for me as a whole, it would be better if I got a good rest every night.’”

Since the Elite 90 honors are presented during the NCAA championships, the obvious focus of the sport is on competition. With that in mind, it’s funny to note that neither Zinsner nor Coogan had any idea their Elite 90 Award was coming — or that it even existed.

“They actually announced it at the Cross Country Nationals after the race while going through all the awards for the contestants. I didn’t know it was a thing, my team didn’t know it was a thing. I was just surprised like everyone!” Coogan recalled with a laugh. “I think my coach knew it was coming. When they started announcing it he told us to all shut up, which was surprising. After I received the award, the whole team congratulated me and made fun of it a bit. It was pretty funny on the way home.”

“I was actually completely surprised by it. I didn’t know what the Elite 90 award was or that it existed,” added Zinsner. “It was just after practice at the Final Four – we were just talking as a team and suddenly my name and face was like it was on the video wall in the stadium. I had no idea what was going on. Then a couple of people from the NCAA told me that I had won the Elite 90 award before the team. The support I got from my teammates was great.”

As Coogan and Zinsner both evaluate their 2022-23 campaigns, the age-old question that plagues every college student was asked, “What do you hope to do after your time at Carolina comes to an end?” Both student-athletes were shy in their Answers.

“I plan to take advantage of my COVID year and take advantage of my extra year of lacrosse eligibility,” Zinsner said. “Beyond that, I’m definitely looking for a job and I’m still figuring out exactly what I want to do. I worked in real estate last summer and I enjoyed it, so maybe something along those lines in finance.”

“I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do after college. I would like to get to the level of running that I could continue running after college. I would also like to keep trying new things while I’m in Carolina,” he told Coogan. “Outside of my biology major courses, I’m trying other courses because I really don’t know what I want to do. I know I’m interested in biology classes, which sure is a good place to start, but I don’t know what I want to do when I graduate. Luckily I have some time to figure that out!”

No matter what they choose, it’s clear that the drive and discipline that led both Zinsner and Coogan to their Elite 90 honors will set them well for the future.

To see past issues of Born & Bred and read other great stories, visit The Rams Club’s Born & Bred Archive here.