The following article by Head Coach Bob Hepler, with assistants Kyle Dickinson and Joanna Friesen, was published in the Spring/Summer 2022 Crossroads magazine.
In 2018, I arrived at EMU after spending 14 years as an administrator and coach at University of Texas Tyler. My time at UT Tyler was fruitful — I started their track and field program, won 23 track and cross country conference championships, coached 20 All-Americans and four individual NCAA champions.
However, in 2018, my personal goal was to coach at a small Christian university that puts academics ahead of winning. EMU became my next move. When I arrived, it was clear the program was on life support, weakened by a series of coaching turnovers, in most cases due to personal circumstances. A core of committed athletes stayed with the program, and coaches Hannah Chappell-Dick ’18 and Joanna Friesen MDiv ’21 put their lives on hold to keep the program going. Former dean of students Ken Nafziger ’79 and director of athletics Dave King ’76 also provided instrumental support through this time.
I’ll be honest: These last few years have been challenging, with low roster numbers, further coaching departures, less than competitive conference performances and COVID-19 limitations. But there are signs of hope, building on the commitment and passion of our coaching staff. We bring different strengths and personalities, but we share a common vision for the Royals program and we all intend on coaching here for many years to come.
Committed to coaching
Joanna Friesen, former Houghton College record-setter, was here before I arrived. She has been instrumental in the development of our triathlon team and distance program, and has a growing role in our recruiting efforts. Kyle Dickinson signed on in 2020 as associate head coach to work with sprints and jumps. He came to EMU after successful stints at Shippensburg University and Penn State Harrisburg, where he had a hand in producing over 30 conference champions, eight All-Americans, 16 national qualifiers, and multiple conference athletes of the year.
A committed coaching staff is one step towards a fully realized vision for the Royals. But three more pieces need to fall into place: athlete development, improved recruiting, and the need for a new track and field facility.
We’re already seeing an increasing number of athletes grow and succeed with us. Our roster increased to 42 this year, rebounding from a low of 25 in spring 2019. Team numbers provide both critical mass and a competitive spirit. Our athletes were stunningly successful with an incredible number of Top 10 All-Time performances during the 2021-22 track season. With the program approaching its 50th anniversary, a top ten performance is no small feat. Two elite athletes, seniors Alijah Johnson and Isaac Alderfer, each broke EMU and conference records, won conference championships, and have qualified for the last several NCAA indoor and outdoor national championships.
With these individual successes come improved team performances: Both women’s and men’s cross country had their best finishes in years at the ODAC championships, coming in third and fourth respectively. In track, the men finished fifth and the women seventh. Consider these performances in light of the most recent NCAA rankings. The ODAC had six of the top 10 teams in the region, including EMU at 10th.These results are a solid improvement for the program in what is now one of the best conferences in the country.
Most importantly, our program’s larger roster includes student-athletes representing diverse socio-economic and racial backgrounds. In our multi-disciplinary sport, every athlete of all body type and disposition can find an event in which they can compete and improve; we are the embodiment of inclusivity. EMU track and field is not only a key program in the university’s efforts to increase diversity and encourage belonging; it directly aligns with its mission and values.
Progress is being made!
We are now poised for a higher level of success, but one key element is missing. A quality facility is desperately needed. When high school juniors and seniors see our current track, they usually eliminate EMU from their college list. A new facility combined with coaching stability, proven athletic development, and a focused approach to recruiting will lead to a roster of 60-70 athletes and consistent ODAC top-five team finishes within two years of the opening of the new facility. This is not just a gut feeling; Kyle, Joanna and our athletes have laid a strong foundation for growth and success.