Earlier this summer, head cross-country coach Michael Friess announced his retirement from the department after leading the cross-country and track and field teams for the previous 29 years.
Emmah Chelimo and the remaining runners on the team were shocked by the news.
“The news of coach Friess’ retirement wasn’t something any of us expected. He’s coached the team very well, and we’ve had many successes over the years. I have personally made tremendous improvement under his coaching,” Chelimo said.
With just a month until the first cross-country meet, a new head coach is yet to have been announced. However, new and returning athletes are still preparing for the season.
As of late July, there are 10 runners returning to the men’s team and six runners returning to the women’s team. There are also two recruits joining the men’s team, both Alaskans. Niko Latva-Kiskola, from Anchorage and Skyler McIntyre from Sitka, will both be joining as first-time freshman.
Latva-Kiskola competed for Dimond High School in cross-country from 2015-2018. During his senior year, he placed sixth at 4A State Cross Country Division I Championships in the 5,000-meter with a time of 16:38.
He continued on to set a new personal best at the Nike Hole in the Wall XC Invitational with a time of 16:13. Latva-Kiskola placed 55th out of a field of 272 runners from around the country.
McIntyre competed for Sitka High School from 2016-2018, with his senior year being the most successful. He placed fourth at the 4A State Cross Country Division II Championships with a time of 16:41.
Two weeks later, McIntyre traveled to Portland, Oregon to compete in the Warner Pacific XC Classic, setting a new personal record of 16:23 in the 5,000-meter. He placed 35th out of 134 competitors.
Despite the new additions, the Seawolves lost several standout runners.
On the women’s team, Zennah Jepchumba, Danielle McCormick and Kimberly Coscia all completed their final season during 2018-2019.
Jepchumba was the team’s top runner during the previous season, placing 22nd in the NCAA National Champions, with McCormick at 45th and Coscia at 86th.
Jepchumba also placed ninth in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships.
As for the men, only Jorge Sanchez finished his final season with the Seawolves. He placed seventh in the GNAC Championships and 65th at the NCAA Championships during the 2018-2019 season.
Overall, the Seawolves finished among the best ranked teams in the nation. The women’s cross-country team ranked sixth overall, while the men’s team ranked eighth.
Returning to the men’s team is standout junior Felix Kemboi. He placed second in the NCAA West Regionals and 54th at the NCAA National Championships.
“I am training and doing all it takes to remain fit and be competitive for the upcoming season, despite all the ups and downs,” Kemboi said. “I am just taking control of what I control. With the loss of coach [Friess], we feel the impact, but we have what it takes to be competitive. He left the spirit with us, so with the help of other coaches, I believe we will be okay.”
Many of the returning runners are feeling the impact of losing Friess after having been coached by him for years, including Chelimo, who had been coached by Friess for the previous three years.
Despite the impact Friess’ retirement might have on the team, the athletes are staying positive and motivated.
“I wish him all the best in his endeavors. We all learned a lot from him and we couldn’t be more grateful. We have learned to work together as a team, work hard and keep a positive energy,” Chelimo said.
Ruth Cvancara, a sophomore, sees Friess leaving as just another challenge. With all the budget issues in recent years, student-athletes have dealt with a lot of stress.
“There are a lot of changes going on at UAA, but there isn’t much I can do about it. [We] might as well accept it, adjust and move forward, knowing that the changes are serving a bigger purpose,” Cvancara said.
The runners will be back in action on Aug. 31 at the UAF Invitational in Fairbanks.