Welch never forgets his AK roots [Cross Country]

October 11, 2013

Ben Welch

Being that Ben Welch was born and raised in Alaska, he still feels a strong connection with his home state even though he now lives in La Grande, Ore.

Maybe that’s why the Eastern Oregon University cross country and track coach surrounds himself with Alaska runners. There are nearly a dozen competing for the NAIA school.

“I definitely feel a different kind of kinship with the athletes from up there,” Welch told me. “I have a soft spot for Alaskans as I never intended to live anywhere but up there after college … until I became a college coach.”

Welch, of Wasilla High fame, won the Alaska state cross country title in 1980 and was the first in a run of Valley champions including Gordon Birdsall, Chris Gilbert and Norm Rousey.

He started his college coaching career at the University of Kansas as a student assistant. Then he went to Highline College in Washington, where he coached for three years and won four conference titles and three coach-of-the-year awards.

Then he came to Eastern Oregon – that was 21 years ago.

He has turned EOU cross country team into a national power, qualifying for nationals 17 times with the men and nine times with the women. His 2002 men’s team was the national runner-up. His teams have won a combined 19 Cascade Conference championships.

Welch is one of the most successful college coaches from Alaska.

Better yet, he’s done it with Alaskans over the years. Welch estimated that he’s had 30 to 40 Alaska runners compete for EOU on his watch.

“They tend to be a bit tougher and if they are going to attend school far from home – a more excepted thing for Alaska college-bound individuals than many parts of the country – they tend to be a bit open to different ideas, experiences and locations as a result,” he said.

Welch can strike gold with Alaska recruits because he knows firsthand how most fly under the radar with other coaches.

Take Issac Updike of Ketchikan. Last year, Updike won a national title in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NAIA Track and Field Championships with a school-record time. He was just the school’s tenth national champion since 1955, but the first from Alaska.

“We have had a bunch quality for nationals, but never one win a title for us,” Welch said. “Pretty impressive for a young man who only ran about two track meets in high school.”

Alaskans running at EUO are Calvin Edwards and Taylor Owens of Wasilla; Christy Roe of Kodiak; Rachel Roelle, Hans Roelle and Phillip Sebastiani of Anchorage; Isaac Updike and Lucas Updike of Ketchikan; and Kailey Wilson Copper Center.

“Oh boy, this is a special group, with three men and three women each in our top five in cross country and all eight of the distance runners being strong students,” Welch said. “The sprinters, for the most part are young and we will see what they can do, but there is some promise there for sure. Both cross country squads would not be nearly as good as they are without them.”