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His 14th season at Utah will be the last for throwing coach Tapio Kuusela, whose athletes have set school records in shot put, hammer, weight throw, discus and javelin.

Kuusela didn't choose to retire, nor is he leaving for another program. Rather, head coach Kyle Kepler decided last fall that his team needs to take a step forward, and to do that, it needs to leave Kuusela behind.

Kuusela said it's "tough" to have watched Utah grow into a Pac-12 program, only to learn, "I'd have to throw all that away, because the odds are that I'll never be back in the Pac-12."

Kepler, likewise, called it "incredibly tough."

There are no known demerits against Kuusela, who served as interim head coach in 2005 and is reportedly well-liked by his athletes. The decision to let him go after this season signifies an increased focus on distance running, where Kepler and the athletics administration believe Salt Lake's altitude gives the team a natural advantage. They will hire a distance coach this summer.

But the new direction was tough for some to stomach.

"My first reaction was to go back to Finland," Ilse Kaaja, the top freshman in the hammer throw at NCAA preliminaries last season, wrote in an email to The Tribune. "I was obviously sad because Tapio has done an amazing job with the throwing group and he's gotten good results with the athletes that he has coached. I was disappointed because I made a huge commitment coming to school here and moving to another continent to work with him."

Kepler sees it as an opportunity to specialize: USC is known as a sprint school, and Utah would like to be known as a distance school, a la Colorado.

At the moment, it's known as a Pac-12 doormat. Utah landed ninth at the Pac-12 cross country championships in October. Since joining the Pac-12, Utah's best finish at the conference outdoor track championships is a tie with Cal for 10th in 2012. In truth, that's a tie for last place, because Oregon State does not field a full team. Utah was 11th in 2013 and 2014.

Although throwing events accounted for seven of Utah's 23 points at last year's championships, throwers combined for just five of 35 points in 2012 and 2013.

Kepler admits it's a tall order to emulate Colorado. Because the Buffs field both a men's and women's track team, they are alloted five assistant coaches to Utah's two, and they're able to pitch talented runners on three dedicated distance coaches.

Among those: head coach and five-time NCAA Coach of the Year Mark Wetmore.

But Kepler believes a second distance coach — who would coach the same athletes in cross country — can close the gap.

Utah might also offer more full scholarships to distance runners, in the hopes of luring another All-American to join the ranks of Jill Molen and Amanda Mergaert.

Athletic director Chris Hill said at a roundtable with media last week that as many as 12 of the team's 18 scholarships could be divided among distance and middle-distance runners.

And Kepler believes the move will free up some of his time for other priorities. He and sprints/hurdles/jumps coach Pete Herber currently coach 35 of Utah's 40 women's track athletes, while Kuusela manages five throwers, he said.

"Tapio's a great coach, but there's only so many events you need those athletes for," Kepler said.

Of the five throwers, two — Aoife Hickey and Destanae Howerton-Davis — are seniors. Two more, Kaaja and sophomore Kassie Nagel, are expected to transfer.

"I told them, we'd love you to stay," Kepler said. "If you want to keep your scholarship, it's there. But at the same time, if you don't, I understand."

Utah may yet continue to score points through Park City's Glasmann family.

Sophomore Megan, who transferred from Stanford after finishing second in the Pac-12 championships in javelin as a freshman, intends to stay. Her younger sister, Chrissy, who broke Megan's Utah prep record last season, is also expected to be a Ute. And their mother, Niki, is a volunteer assistant coach who took fourth at the 1988 NCAA championships with Texas.

They may be the last scholarship throwers, though. Kuusela said he's not bitter about Utah's decision, but realistically "no one will consider coming to Utah when there's no coach."

As for himself, Kuusela said he will consider himself grateful if he's allowed to stay on through June, coaching his athletes through the NCAA outdoor championships in Eugene, Ore., and the USA Track and Field championships.

Twitter: @matthew_piper