Sports

Familiar Face, Unfamiliar Role

Whitefish Athletics

Whitefish High School may soon need a separate building to store its trophies. The school’s main hallway is crowded with awards. The gymnasium’s walls are blanketed with championship banners that hang over the athletic director’s office – the one Jackie Fuller will move into this fall.

She knows expectations are high.

“I’m just jacked,” Fuller said about her new job. “I’m really ready to do this.”

Fuller has been head coach of Whitefish’s formidable volleyball program for 14 years, to go along with 16 years as a physical education teacher. In volleyball she has won five out the last seven state championships, including the last three. With current AD Meg Olson leaving after a five-year stint, Fuller’s credentials and reputation made her a clear choice for the job.

Fuller will continue coaching and teaching. On top of that, she plans to take online classes from the University of Montana to earn a master’s degree in education.

She isn’t worried about handling the workload, only about the family time it will take away. But she said her husband and kids are 100 percent supportive and that gives her all the comforting she needs.

Colleagues of Fuller aren’t worried whether she can handle the extra work either.

“She’s just tireless and passionate,” Olson said. “She’s going to do a great job.”

Jeff Peck, Whitefish’s assistant principal and a former football coach at Flathead High, agreed.

“She is very much an inspiration to me in everything that she does,” Peck said. “I can’t express what she means to this (school).”

He added, “She’s committed to her profession more than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Growing up in Anaconda, Fuller’s dad was a football and wrestling coach and her five siblings all participated in sports. She spent her summers hanging around softball fields and swimming pools. She was not as actively involved in high school athletics, however, as one might think. Aside from swimming, her other foray into sports was basketball, in which she got cut from the team her junior year.

But she loved sports and helping people. So after high school she attended the University of Montana-Western in Dillon to prepare herself for a career in coaching by studying physical and business education. Then in 1984 she got her first coaching job at Shelby High School. There she coached track, basketball and volleyball. She won a state championship in volleyball, a foreshadowing to the five more she would win at Whitefish.

Fuller’s colleagues rarely talk about her athletic accolades, instead focusing on her uncanny ability to relate to students.

“Kids gravitate to her,” said Julio Delgado, Whitefish’s long-time boys basketball coach and Fuller’s good friend. “She probably does more counseling than the counselors do.”

Courtney Ferda, Kirsten Blackburn and Kellie Kalbfleisch, three captains from this year’s team, started playing volleyball in Fuller’s community program in third grade and have played under her throughout high school. They cited a long list of life lessons, not statistics, even though each has been part of three state champion teams.

“She’s a friend,” Ferda said. “Someone you always listen to and who listens to you.”

Fuller said there’s much for her to learn between now and June 6, Olson’s last official day. She has been working with Olson, Peck and Principal Kent Paulson in recent weeks to learn more about scheduling, budgeting and hiring new coaches. She said that budgeting is the greatest challenge because she has never been involved so deeply in finances for her team, let alone every activity at the school, which includes non-athletic activities like band and debate.

Fuller takes over the athletic department at a time of particular strength. Last fall Whitefish won state championships in five different sports. The school is currently the leading candidate for the All-Sports Trophy, awarded every year to the Montana high school with the greatest all-around athletic success. Usually Class AA has a monopoly on the award, but Whitefish looks to bring it to Class A. Fuller said the success is contagious and will continue for that reason.

“Kids want to be a part of it, parents want to be a part of it, the community wants to be a part of it,” she said. “It’s special.”

The three captains pointed out that from a three-time state championship team, only one player is going on to play in college. None of the three captains will. Only a team that has been taught to overachieve and work together, they said, can dominate a sport without any huge stars.

“She can get the best out of her girls,” Ferda said. “She’s taught us that if we’re supposed to do 20 passes, we always do 21.”

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