It’s a truly amazing record of success: six state championships in five years, as well as three second-place finishes and one third.
That’s the five-year record of the Lovell High School track and field program since the school returned to Class 2A for the 2009-10 school year after two years in 3A.
The Lovell girls have won four out of the last five state titles and were second in 2013. The boys won two in a row in 2012 and 2013 and were second in 2010 and 2014, third in 2011.
Coaches and close observers of the Lovell program say that having a well-rounded track and field program along with coaches who love the sport and are able to focus on specific events are the keys to the program’s long-term success. And having a couple of thoroughbreds along the way doesn’t hurt.
Lovell Athletic Director Joe Koritnik, who coached the track team for seven years from 2005 through 2011 and has been a close observer as AD during Josh Sanders’ three years as head coach, said he has seen a culture and mindset change over the years as the sport grew in prominence at LHS with quality coaches and athletes able to compete – and succeed – in multiple events.
“Josh helped me right from the get-go (2006), and then Caleb (Sanders) arrived (2009),” Koritnik said, noting that Lovell always had quality throwing under coach Chad Lindsay, who has coached eight state champions, and the school was always known as a good sprinting and jumping school, along with pole vault when Kevin Robertson was coaching.
But the key to recent success, Koritnik said, has been the growth in the long-distance running.
“Hardly anybody ran over 800 meters,” he said. “Distance running was foreign to Lovell track.”
One of the huge helps in that area was the birth and growth of the cross country team. For a while a few Lovell athletes ran for John Bernhisel’s program at Rocky Mountain High School, and when Caleb Sanders arrived, Lovell started its own program, which swelled to its greatest participation in the fall of 2013.
“Over the last 10 years I lobbied for cross country,” Koritnik said. “Caleb is a really good coach. He understands distance running. I told Dan Coe (superintendent) we needed cross country to strengthen the track program and get kids running in the fall.”
The school also added an indoor track team a few years ago, which has spurred some athletes to compete in track and field.
Koritnik and Josh Sanders also know and love distance running, so the enthusiasm was contagious. This year Lovell had four state champions at State in the races 800 meters or longer.
“A huge reason for the success of the track program is definitely solid middle-distance and distance running,” Josh Sanders said.
Koritnik said growth in other areas of the team is important, too.
“The thing I like watching the track program now is that the coaching staff does such a good job getting kids in every event,” Koritnik said. “On the girls side they had somebody in every event, and that’s how you win championships.”
Adding a fourth (paid) coach has helped, as well, the AD said.
“Two years ago we were able to get a fourth coach (in the budget),” Koritnik said, noting that having four coaches with a focus and knowledge in specific areas has been a huge plus. “When you have three that limits you, with 50 kids and 17 events and both a boys team and a girls team.
“To get a fourth coach has added to the growth of the Lovell program.”
“He (Koritnik) was really helpful in that. He felt we needed that,” Josh Sanders said. “He and Scott (O’Tremba, principal) looked at the numbers and said let’s do that.”
Now the team has Daniel Robertson focusing on sprints and pole vaulting, Caleb Sanders middle and long distance running, Chad Lindsay (part-time volunteer) throwing, Josh Sanders triple jump and vaulting and Bob Weber high jump and long jump.
“You bring in someone with Bob’s experience, that really helps,” Koritnik said. “When we first started Josh was our distance coach, then Caleb took over distance and Josh went to jumps and became a very outstanding jumps coach. Then when you add a fourth coach they have a better chance to work with smaller numbers and specific events.
“Josh allowed Bob to go into his natural area (long jump), so Josh took over the hurdlers and we’re seeing growth in the hurdles.”
Koritnik noted the development of senior Derek Phelps, who qualified for and placed at the state track meet in the 110-meter hurdles, as an example of an athlete working hard under the guidance of good coaching.
“We’re also fortunate to have Chad, someone with his knowledge and expertise,” Koritnik said. “With changes in his job he’s not quite as available, but we’ve continually had throwers placing in the top eight.”
“We have coaches all across the board who love track and key in on their areas,” Caleb Sanders said.
Josh Sanders agreed, noting, “Coach Weber loves what he does, and Coach Robertson loves what he does. In some programs coaches are assigned and have no passion for it. The kids see that, and that will spell doom for a program.
“We’re lucky with the coaches we have. I think four out of our five would say track is the number one sport they coach, and track would probably be tied for the fifth coach. Kids go out for something that has meaning and value, and that has to start with the coaches.”
The numbers game
Numbers are important in track, too, coaches agreed, and not just for scoring points. Caleb Sanders said when all or most of the events are filled, it not only provides quality competition, it helps teammates to stay engaged during a meet, with fewer gaps between events.
“There is an element of getting kids out,” Josh Sanders said. “It has to be a huge part of your program. A coach at the Simplot Games (during indoor track) said that every high school has a state championship track team in the halls. The challenge is getting kids to come out and do it.”
“You have to have buy-in,” Caleb agreed.
“You have to do things with the program to show you’re serious and excited, little things like Monday meetings recognizing athletes,” Josh said.
Being well organized is important, too, since track has so many athletes and so much time that could become unstructured without coaches paying attention. A season-long plan is just as important as a daily plan, coaches said.
“Training is not just thrown together at the last minute,” Caleb Sanders said. “It’s mapped out pretty good. The idea is to peak at the right time. You can see the 10 weeks in front of you.”
Spring is a busy time, with lots of conflicting activities for busy students, and at times track has been known as the sport where athletes can attend practice “when they can.” But that doesn’t go over well for the Lovell coaches.
“I know track is perceived in that way, but we don’t like doing that,” Caleb Sanders said, and added Josh, “That (missing practice) makes us unhappy.”
Caleb said students should come to practice every day and on time just like other sports, and both coaches agreed it’s important to mix in some fun things to keep the athletes from getting too stressed.
Of course, any sport has to have the athletes to compete, and both Sanders brothers acknowledge that they have been blessed.
“We hit it at the right time,” Josh Sanders said. “We have some good athletes. It helps to have some thoroughbreds. How many school records have we seen over the last five years?”
Counting them up, the two figured on 13: two by Collin McArthur, four by Kim Shumway, three by Karen Koritnik, one by Whitney Grant, one by Miranda Griffis and two relay teams.
“Success breeds success,” Joe Koritnik noted. “You start winning a couple of state championships and suddenly kids want to be a part of that. Freshmen want to be part of a winning program.”
A program must have both talent and depth, and that takes kids coming out, he said.
“Athletes like Karen and Kim are rare athletes,” Koritnik said. “But Josh made a good point at the banquet. If you take Kim away, Lovell still wins the state meet. The young kids they have show the strength of the program and the point it has been built to. The kids have been getting better through the years because of the good coaching we have.”
Track and field town?
Lovell has been known over the years as a “basketball town” and, in recent years, a “football town” with the Bulldogs becoming a consistent contender under Doug Hazen and his staff. Wrestling and volleyball are strong, too. But Koritnik would argue that Lovell could be called a “track and field town” because of its recent success.
“Track has basically created its place alongside those two sports, and that won’t change in 3A with the quality of the coaches,” the AD said. “That goes with the kids, too. There’s a climate of success from program to program. We’re preparing kids to compete well.
“Kids show up knowing they have to work and are willing to work hard. Kids are buying into that right now.”
Moving to Class 3A again will be challenging, the coaches said.
“3A presents new challenges and opportunities,” Caleb Sanders said. “The kids will improve and rise to the challenge.”
“We compete against them all the time, and they beat us with sheer numbers,” Josh Sanders said. “At State I’m sure we can close the gap on them.”
By David Peck