University of Alaska Fairbanks senior Kaillee Skjold drives to the basket in early February 2017. (Photo courtesy of UAF/Paul H. McCarthy)

University of Alaska Fairbanks senior Kaillee Skjold drives to the basket in early February 2017. (Photo courtesy of UAF/Paul H. McCarthy)

SoHi graduate Skjold caps successful hoops career at UAF

Kaillee Skjold, a 2013 Soldotna High School graduate, still remembers, vividly, the practice when the fear began to clear.

It was an 8 a.m. Monday session in Skjold’s freshman year in women’s basketball at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The team had just gotten back from a two-game road trip Sunday at 4 p.m. and Skjold said the general feeling in the air was, “If I could be anywhere else right now, I would.”

“We were getting chewed out for something we weren’t executing properly,” said Skjold, who wrapped up her hoops career with the Nanooks in late February. “I realized in that moment I hadn’t taken ownership of being on the team or accepted being a Nanook UAF college athlete.

“I thought, ‘You know what, this is my team. I don’t want to keep running and getting yelled at for the same things.’ I remember that spurred on a lot of passion and respect for my team and coaches. I started to see more playing time.”

Skjold, daughter of Eric and Joy Skjold of Kasilof, would end up starting in nine games as a freshman to jump-start a career in which she would finish with 1,247 points — ninth in UAF history — and 728 rebounds — sixth all-time on the Nanooks list.

The 5-foot-11 forward also would play a big role in improving UAF’s program. The Nanooks were 5-21 the year before Skjold arrived, but went 9-17 when she was a freshman, 14-14 in sophomore year, 12-18 in the junior campaign and 13-14 this season.

All because Skjold was able to solve fear.

“I came into Fairbanks with the fear of not knowing who I was as an athlete and a person,” Skjold said. “It was a huge developmental process. I leaned a lot on teammates and coaches and I’m really thankful for it.”

Playing with the Stars

At Soldotna, Skjold helped the Stars to state as a sophomore and a junior, making the all-state team as a junior and also earning co-MVP honors in the Northern Lights Conference. She said coaches Mark Tuter and Doug Blossom helped lay the foundation for success in the future.

“I also realized some of my weaknesses,” Skjold said. “I’m extremely competitive — it’s one of my greatest strengths and it can also be a crippling weakness.

“I started to find ways to use it to my advantage instead of letting it hurt me.”

That competitiveness, as well as Skjold’s skills, drew Fairbanks coach Cody Bench to sign up Skjold before her senior year.

Bench served as Skjold’s coach for all four of her years before resigning after seven seasons in March.

“Skillwise, I knew she was very diverse,” Bench said. “She was strong inside and she was strong outside. She was strong going to the basket and she was a decent outside shooter.”

But in Skjold’s senior season, a Stars team loaded with talent ended up not making the state tournament in bizarre fashion. SoHi was originally announced as part of the field, but when it was discovered the Winning Percentage Index calculation had been incomplete, SoHi lost that spot.

“When I came to Fairbanks, I did have a lot of fear,” Skjold said. “I didn’t have a lot of peace about playing ball. I was kind of running on fumes because I didn’t know what kind of player I was because of some adversity I faced in high school.”

Turning the tide at UAF

Like Skjold, Bench doesn’t remember the exact date of the fated practice.

“I just decided we weren’t doing what we wanted to do and getting to where we wanted to go,” Bench said of Skjold’s freshman season. “Ultimately, she started the last nine or 10 games of the season and started playing much better.

“It was a sign of good things to come.”

Skjold averaged 7.7 points per game and 2.5 rebounds per game as a freshman, then appeared in all 28 games as a sophomore — starting 21 — while averaging 9.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds per game.

During her freshman and sophomore years, Skjold forged an important bond with Jordan Wilson, who just finished her career second on UAF’s all-time scoring list with 1,700 points and nabbed an All-Great Northwest Athletic Conference First Team nod this season.

Skjold said that Wilson also wants to do well at everything she tries. So living with Wilson, it was easy to fall into a tight schedule of study, practice, agility and weightlifting.

“I really lucked out living with Jordan Wilson,” Skjold said. “It always helps to have people to be accountable to, and as a roommate I found that kind of person naturally.”

Skjold gave similar credit to Victoria Milton and Autumn Childers, another pair that played all five years with her. Jaylee Mays and Gabriela Jimenez also joined the class as junior college transfers.

No matter what Skjold did, whether it was on the practice court or a workout on the track, she said one of the group could always keep her working by taking her to school.

“They’re just workers — every single one of them is a worker,” Skjold said. “They have a passion for playing and doing one of the hardest things in basketball — putting away a lot of selfish tendencies.

“I’m grateful for their willingness to buy into the program.”

As a junior, Skjold nabbed All-GNAC honorable mention honors. She started in all 30 games, leading the team in rebounding at 6.5 per game, assists at 97, blocks at 23 and free-throw percentage at 82.5 percent. She was second on the team in scoring at 11.9 points per game.

Hitting the books as well as boards

Skjold’s work as a student also was put into sharp focus at the end of her junior year. She was named the Nanook Athletics Advisory Committee Women’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

The award is based on academics and athletics, as well as on- and off-campus leadership activities, community service and character. The process of getting the award even involves getting interviewed by university staff.

Skjold, an emergency management major, also has three all-GNAC all-academic awards to her name.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Skjold said of being a student-athlete, especially one playing in Fairbanks far away from most opponents. “I didn’t always have access to the internet, especially when I started flying my freshman year.

“There’s a lot of time sucked away late night at gas stations, or standing in line at the airport. The way to do it is time management.”

Skjold also worked at UAF’s University Fire Department in the offseasons as a firefighter/EMT. The department has student employees serving a sector of the community.

“That’s part of the legacy she leaves,” Bench said. “She’s very committed to building herself as a whole. She takes all parts of her life seriously — career, relationships, academics — those all matter to her.”

Capping a career

In her senior year, Skjold had a conference-high 10 double-doubles, averaging 15.7 points and 8.56 rebounds per game. She earned all-GNAC honorable mention for the second straight season.

The Nanooks, led by the six seniors, were 9-11 in the GNAC, missing getting the program’s first berth to the GNAC Championship Tournament after losing out in a four-way tie for sixth. The nine GNAC victories were the most for UAF in 12 seasons.

“It was a great group of women that bought into the system we were trying to develop,” Bench said. “They left a legacy here at UAF — they were very competitive, worked hard and were fun to watch. They’re outstanding people. I’m proud of them.”

Now that her college basketball career is over, Skjold is taking a deep breath before deciding what place, for example coaching, the game might hold in her future.

But she knows what she learned through playing basketball will be with her forever.

“I love basketball and knew I had a knack for it, but there are so many things it provided to me — good coaches, teammates, mentors and strong relationships I could not have anticipated,” Skjold said. “I definitely couldn’t have anticipated how I could use basketball to facilitate career goals.

“I love working as a team, I love pressure and really stressful situations. You can’t find that unless you’re losing by two or practice goes really poorly and you have to talk things out to make a change in direction.”

Skjold will graduate this spring and get married in the summer to Tobin Sworts, who she met in an EMT class. Skjold has grown to really like Fairbanks — even living in a dry cabin her junior and senior years — but she said the couple would at least like to stay in Alaska.

“It feels like I’ve known her such a long time,” Bench said. “I’m grateful I had the opportunity to coach her and grateful she chose UAF.

“We’ve gone through the good, bad and ugly and stuck together. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does with her life.”

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