Cross country coach brings home Wrangell sports legacy

Kayla Rooney hated running when she started. Now she can't imagine her life without it.

The four-time state placer returned to Wrangell specifically to coach the high school cross country team, continuing a family legacy of coaching.

"My mom (Trisa Rooney) made me start running. I told her I didn't want to do it. She told me I could try it out, and if I didn't like it, I could quit," Rooney said. "So, a few weeks in, I didn't like it and I wanted to quit, and my mom told me, 'Well, you've already started. You can't quit now."

By the end of that first cross country season in 2009, Rooney "absolutely loved it." She qualified to go to state her freshman year and every year after that. Though she didn't win any of the state races, she placed each year. No other female on the team has done that since Rooney until now.

Like Rooney, senior Liana Carney has gone to state every year, placing each of the past three years.

"I'm really happy (coach Rooney) came back. I love the Rooney family," Carney said. "Jeff (Rooney's father) is my coach in wrestling. (Her mom) is my athletic director, and (brother) Ryan is a senior in my class. She's a great coach for us. It's definitely fun to have a coach who's been in our high school and comparing our times with hers."

Carney said part of the inspiration in a coach like Rooney is that she can say she's competed in the same way, encouraging her runners to do the same.

When the opportunity to return to Wrangell and coach the cross country team came up, the decision was simple for Rooney, now 26 and a certified nursing assistant.

"It's something I wanted to do since I got out of high school but wasn't able to until last year," she said. She returned from Anchorage specifically to coach. "I'm pretty committed to coaching. I really enjoy the kids that I have. Since I got it last year, I didn't want to give it up. I felt like I owed it to the kids to come back and coach so they didn't have a new coach every other year."

During her running career in high school, Rooney credits coach Monty Buness for helping her improve her times. Buness would tell one runner to catch another. Then, he would quietly approach the runner to be caught and tell that person not to be caught by the first person. "That always stuck with me because it helps the students kind of get faster and work a little bit harder," she said.

Rooney will sometimes employ that technique to this day, but she tends to put her own spin on it.

"My boys - I've got Devlyn (Campbell), Daniel (Harrison) and Ethan (Blatchley) - run together at practice. During competition they're pretty spaced out, so I'm just telling them, 'I want you guys as a group, just stick together as a team and help push each other along the way.'"

Her strategy is working. The girls have placed third as a team so far this season, and the boys are getting stronger, she said. "Looking at placements for our division, I've have at least four (boys) in every single race place in the top 15."

Along with coaching, Rooney is working at SEARHC as a COVID tester. Her plan is to stay a coach for a long time. After the cross country season ends this weekend, she plans to return to Anchorage and get contract travel work, allowing her to take three months off to coach.

Her approach to life, in part, is dictated by what running has taught her.

"Running has taught me discipline. It has taught me my body is going to take me a lot farther than my mind thinks it's going to. It has taught me no matter how much you want to give up, just keep going. It will be worth it," she said.


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