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The Canby native, assistant track coach and Olympic hopeful in the 800 meters excited to help young cross country squad develop

ST. PAUL — When St. Paul cross-country coach Don Kunkel retired from teaching in June, athletic director Tony Smith didn't have to search very far for a replacement.

After all, he had an assistant coach who had worked with the track team's distance runners for the past three seasons, so at least a smooth transition was likely.

That doesn't even take into account that McKayla Fricker is also a former NCAA Division II national champion at Seattle Pacific and 2020 Olympic hopeful in the 800 meters.SETH GORDON - Canby native and 2020 Olympic hopeful McKayla Fricker has taken over as St. Paul's head cross-country coach this fall after working as an assistant on the Bucks track team the past three years.

But even if Smith had been completely unaware of her competitive pedigree, he had already seen enough of her in action to know he was lucky to have a coach of her caliber already on staff.

"She's awesome," Smith said. "She's a kid magnet, too. The kids love her."

A Canby native, Fricker married St. Paul teacher and assistant football, basketball and track coach Chris Smucker after both attended Seattle Pacific, graduating in 2014.

Her existing relationships with the track team may have been a significant factor in the Bucks having a team at all this season.

Just a few weeks before the start of practice in August, it was still unclear whether St. Paul would have enough athletes to field a team, so a contingency plan to form a co-op team with North Marion High School was explored.

That proved to be unnecessary, as nine runners came out for the team at first and have since been joined by four more, making it the largest squad St. Paul has had in some time. More importantly, that includes enough girls, six, to compete as a team for the first time in recent memory.

A year ago, the boys had seven runners, but senior Griselda Vargas-Ayala was the lone girl.

"It's a full girls team, which is really exciting," Fricker said. "They're all new, so they're figuring out what is this long-distance running, but they are working really well together so far. Some are starting to pop up that they're getting it and know how to push hard. I think it's going to be a really good girls group."

Three runners return from the boys team, led by top finisher Turner Lear, who placed 26th in 3A/2A/1A Special District 2 as a sophomore last fall. He is joined by fellow returners Spencer Curtis, a senior who will also play football for the Bucks, and fellow junior Wyatt Bean. In addition, two freshmen, along with soccer and track team member Gianni Grasso, will round out the team.

"I think they're starting to shape up pretty good, too," Fricker said. "For the most part, as we're starting to do workouts, there's at least three that are sticking together in the lead and the other two aren't that far back. That's exciting because it's going to be a team that's not very spread out throughout the race, so they'll be able to work together and score those points."

Fricker said she has been pleased with the team dynamic, but also likes how her runners have been attentive as she has focused more on strengthening exercises and injury prevention at the outset. She said there is plenty of time this season to pile on the miles.

"We're spending time doing all these different exercises and drills, so it's not only running," Fricker said.

Following in the footsteps of her own high school coach, Canby's Tom Milbrook, Fricker is also addressing the mental side of the sport, as she responded well to his positive yet matter-of-fact coaching style.

"They've been listening and running and so far it's been really good, especially for the ones who haven't done cross-country," Fricker said. "Distance running is not easy. I told them the first day, but if you put your mind toward your goal and push yourself to do it, it's an incredible feeling when you get there and just so rewarding. So far I'm really impressed by them and really excited to see how it continues this season."

The Bucks will begin the season Thursday at the Darrel Deedon Cascade Invitational in Turner.

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