Sports

Not Done Running

Even as her 44-year teaching career comes to an end, Bigfork’s Sue Loeffler is still driving some of the state’s fastest runners

When she was growing up in Havre, before the Montana High School Association was sponsoring much in the way of girls sports, a teenage Sue Loeffler still found a way to scratch her competitive itch. On the streets near their house, Sue’s brother, Bob Bronson, would entice local boys with a challenge they felt certain they would win: beat his sister in a footrace and win a bet. And one by one they arrived to face Bob’s big sister and one by one, almost without exception, they left in Bob’s debt.

It’s now almost 50 years later, and while Loeffler may have stopped running competitively, she hasn’t stopped winning. The woman in charge of Bigfork High School’s boys and girls cross country and track and field teams, and the woman who, as a 22-year-old, created from scratch the district’s middle and elementary school physical education curriculum, is still her enthusiastic, disciplined and deeply driven self. And even with 44 years of experience and nine state championships already under her belt, the girls track team she takes into this spring season might be her best one yet.

Bigfork head cross country coach Sue Loeffler, pictured in 2014. Beacon File Photo

It’s another snowy April day in a brutal 2018 track season, weather wise, and Loeffler is fresh off leading a few dozen easily distracted teenagers through a grueling indoor workout. It’s clear after just a few minutes that one of the most successful coaches in the state still powerfully commands a practice the way she has for generations of Vikings and Valkyries. Her hair has whitened with age and she had to give up her second passion, softball, years ago, but otherwise the 65-year-old shows no signs of slowing. Her voice echoes with fast-paced exuberance as her young squad completes another round of core-burning variations on planks and squats, sprinting back-and-forth across the gym between sets. Loeffler is smiling but unrelenting, intentionally oblivious to the groans of her charges. There’s something magnetic about Loeffler, a spoonful of confidence, a scoop of charm and a dash of intimidation, that teases out excellence from the students who follow her.

“She had real high expectations for people; not expecting you to do amazing stuff but expecting you to do the most you could do for yourself,” Steve Morley, a 1986 Bigfork grad and record-setting sprinter, said. “That scared a lot of kids; I liked it. I always, for some reason, tried to do my best to impress her.”

Loeffler is an avowed disciple of Neil Eliason, a man she once dubbed the “Godfather of girls track” and who is one of the state’s most revered teachers of the sport. Eliason was Loeffler’s coach at Flathead Valley Community College in the early 1970s and behind his teaching the Mountainettes’ 440-yard relay team won an astonishing NAIA national championship in 1971, besting teams from schools like Texas Tech University and UCLA. Loeffler, then Sue Bronson, ran the anchor leg.

The championship race was recorded on reel-to-reel video and Loeffler’s copy of the title-winning relay was transferred to VHS and later to DVD in the decades since. Curiously, the moment that stands out most to Loeffler today is not her own excellent run or the replay of her younger self crossing the finish line ahead of the nation’s top collegians, it’s one handoff, between the relay’s second and third legs, a handoff so perfect, she says, you have to squint closely to even see it happen.

And that was no accident, teacher and student both agreed.

“That’s what made the relays,” Eliason said. “You didn’t have to have the fastest kids but if the handoffs were perfect you didn’t have any problems. And so we worked hard on that and she continues to work (on that).”

To this day, Loeffler’s practices include a fanatical focus on the little things – efficient relay handoffs and fast starts off the line. Loeffler is quick to deflect any credit for the success of her teams to the high-caliber athletes she’s been lucky enough to coach, but her level of precision, particularly in those two areas, has made Vikes and Vals runners even tougher to beat than their times.

“It didn’t matter if Bigfork had any fast kids or not,” Morley recalled. “She could always have competitive relay teams because she could make it up. It’s just repetition, over and over. She’s got a really keen eye for seeing the subtle little things that can make the difference.”

Loeffler arrived in Bigfork in 1974, after Eliason recommended she graduate as quickly as possible from Montana State University because the high school would soon be looking for a track coach. She immediately took over as the head girls coach and began as an assistant with the boys, assuming the head job years ago (Loeffler does not recall exactly when). The first time one of her track teams won a state title was 1985, when the boys team finished first in Class B behind Morley’s sprinting, and the first track title came for the girls in 1992. Since 1974, Bigfork has added six girls cross country state titles.

The FVCC program folded in the late 1970s, not long after Eliason left to become the head girls track and field coach at MSU, but in the early 2000s he came back to the Flathead Valley and coached cross country and track as an assistant at Bigfork under his mentee.

Loeffler took plenty of lessons beyond just relay handoffs from her former coach, but there’s one in particular that may grant some insight into her ability to command attention. She’s earned her athletes’ respect without ever losing her relentless positivity.

“Kids give themselves enough negative,” Loeffler said. “You need to make sure that they counteract that with positives … They are their own worst enemy, so they’ll come up with the negatives and I’ll go ‘I don’t want to hear the negatives, you need to tell me a positive.’”

Bigfork head coach Sue Loeffler congratulates runners after the Class B state cross country championships. Beacon File Photo

Loeffler’s programs have enjoyed consistent success, winning state titles in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s, but the last three seasons have seen the Valkyries elevate the program to yet another level. The girls cross country team has finished first, second and second in the last three years, and the girls track team was second in 2015 and 2016 before winning the state title last year. Much of the recent success has come thanks in part to a pair of girls with a familiar last name, Makena and Bryn Morley, Steve’s daughters.

Makena, now at the University of Colorado, won four straight Class B state cross country championships and Bryn, now a senior at Bigfork, won the next three after finishing second to Makena as a freshman. (The girls’ brother, Logan, also won a pair of cross country state titles for the Vikings). The force of Makena’s success was so powerful, Loeffler said, that she started drawing more runners into a program that was shuttered for many years in the 1980s and 90s. Early in Makena’s career, the Valkyries didn’t have enough runners to qualify for a team score at the state meet, not reaching that point until her senior year, 2014, when they finished third.

The existence of the cross country program itself is in part a credit to those most intimately involved, Loeffler included. The high school brought the program back from hiatus in 2000 but has only intermittently funded the team, leaving Loeffler to raise the money to pay for the season – she’s even eschewed a salary some years. Thankfully, Loeffler said, Jill Morley, Steve’s wife, and Jessica Johnson, an assistant coach, have organized an annual fun run that has kept the program afloat.

The future of Bigfork cross country, however, is going to look a little different. Loeffler, who began at Bigfork as a middle and elementary school physical education teacher and has taught at the high school for the last several years, is retiring from teaching at the end of this school year. Because of a rule that, according to Loeffler, requires retired employees to take 150 days away from the school after their retirement, she is also stepping down as the school’s cross country coach.

“It’s not fair to try and get a coach and tell them you’re only going to be here for a year,” Loeffler said, explaining that she would still like to remain attached to the program in some way.

But even without cross country, Loeffler has no plans to step away from her self-described love, the Bigfork track teams. This year’s girls squad, the defending Class B state champs, returns Bryn Morley, fellow distance star Anya Young, and reigning 200- and 400-meter sprint champion Haile Norred. The team also features, according to Loeffler, some “dark horses that were just coming on at the end of last year.”

Another title would be just the latest addition to a growing list of accolades Loeffler has compiled, not the least of which was her 2004 induction into the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame. She was enshrined the same year as her FVCC relay teammate, longtime Polson coach Mindy (Sharp) Harwood, something that even today causes Eliason to swell with pride. And perhaps most important to Loeffler, regardless of how this season of high expectations winds up, she’s done more than enough to cement her legacy in Montana coaching circles, including those of her mentor.

“I just admire her very, very much,” Eliason said of Loeffler. “She’s got some great athletes and she’s very capable in teaching them. I know that she’s very deserving.”

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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