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CHALLENGE ACCEPTED, CHALLENGE BEING MET

From her high school days as a Blue Pony, Havre's Loree Payne has found success in whatever she's done. Now, she's doing it yet again, as the head basketball coach at Northern Arizona

 

January 30, 2020

Northern Arizona Athletics

Former Havre High great Loree Payne coaches her Northern Arizona Lumberjacks during a 2019 game. Payne became the NAU head coach two years ago, and like she's done everywhere she's been, as both a coach and a player, she's succeeding, as the Jacks are having a big, turnaround season.

Loree Payne has never been afraid to take on a challenge.

Coming from small-town Havre, it certainly was a challenge to become one of the greatest basketball players in Montana high school history, and yet that's exactly what she is to this day.

Also, coming from Class A Havre High, it was no doubt a challenge for Payne to step outside of that world and play college basketball at a major NCAA Division I program like the University of Washington, but, she not only did that, she was a two-time All-Pac-10 First Team selection, District VIII Kodak All-American and Verizon Academic All-District VIII honoree. Payne helped the Huskies reach two NCAA Tournaments, including an Elite 8 appearance in 2001, and one berth in the WNIT. She finished her career as Washington's seventh-leading scorer with 1,675 career points and all-time leader in three-pointers made with 245. A three-year team captain, her name still appears in the school record book in six categories. In 2000 following her freshman year, she was also a member of the USA Women's R. William Jones Cup gold medal team.

Of course, making the transition from player to coach is a challenge too, and it isn't always easy, but for Payne, she took that challenge head-on in her first head coaching stop, the University of Puget Sound.

Payne enjoyed seven highly successful seasons at the University of Puget Sound, where she compiled a 130-58 overall record and a 78-34 record in the Northwest Conference. A two-time NWC coach of the year, she was named a finalist for the WBCA NCAA Division III National Coach of the Year award following her final season. Known for her up-tempo offensive systems, Payne's Puget Sound teams were consistently among the nation's top-scoring teams, topping out at No. 6 in 2017 at 79.0 points per game.

In Payne's final season at Puget Sound, she guided the Loggers to a school-record 26 wins during a 26-3 campaign. Puget Sound captured its first-ever outright regular season NWC championship with a perfect 16-0 record. The 2016-17 season was her second 20-win campaign at Puget Sound, as the Loggers never posted a losing record during her seven seasons. Payne also coached the Loggers to two NCAA Division III tournament appearances (2015, 2017) and three straight NWC Tournament championship games (2015-17).

While at Puget Sound, Payne coached 18 players to All-NWC honors including nine to the First Team. In back-to-back seasons, she coached the NWC's Freshman of the Year (Jamie Lange, 2017) and Player of the Year (Emily Sheldon, 2016). Sheldon also earned WBCA All-American Honorable Mention distinction in 2016, and Payne coached three players to D3hoops.com All-West Region honors and Capital One Academic All-District VIII honors.

Payne, in fact, did so well at Puget Sound that it would have been very comfortable for her to stay and keep having that kind of success. Instead, though, she decided to take on another challenge.

Two years ago, Payne was named the head coach of the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, a program in the Big Sky Conference that has really been struggling. And yet, Payne didn't back away from the challenge she faced in Flagstaff, and, just two years later, she's completely turned the Lumberjacks around.

"We knew we had our hands full in having to rebuild a program from the ground up," Payne said about an NAU team that won just nine games in the two seasons before she took over. "It has been challenging, but so rewarding as well, to see the team culture grow so significantly in a short amount of time."

Payne should feel rewarded because, in just her third year, NAU is truly on the rise. It wasn't easy, as the Jacks won just four Big Sky games her first season before going a solid 8-12 in conference play and winning 13 games last winter. Now, halfway through the 2019-2020 campaign, the four-time Class A All-Stater and former Blue Pony state champion has Northern Arizona sitting at 6-3 in the Big Sky, and certainly in contention for a championship.

"We have really been focusing on the process and taking things one game at a time," Payne said. "Our non-conference schedule was incredibly tough, and I think we learned a lot from playing those challenging teams.

"I love seeing the players grow and develop on and off the court throughout their collegiate career," she continued when talking about this season, and why she loves coaching. "From their freshman year through their graduation."

Of course, Havre basketball fans will never forget watching Payne and her Blue Pony teams grow through the years. Under head coach Dennis Murphy, Payne was not only a state champion, but, she put together a career that earned her a spot in the Montana High School Association Hall of Fame back in 2009. And, Payne says, she still looks back on those days with great fondness, and still has strong bonds with many of her Blue Pony teammates, whom she says she keeps in touch with through Facebook.

"The support we had," Payne said of her playing days at HHS, where she was also a star on the volleyball court, and on the track. "It was so great packing the gym for the games and having so many people cheering us on. Coach Murphy was an integral part of the success that I had and our teams had there at Havre High."

Payne's teams at HHS were great, and they have stood the test of time as well, but she is also excited to see what the Blue Pony program has become in recent times, saying she follows the now three-time state champion Blue Pony girls of head coach Dustin Kraske, with great pride.

Courtesy of the Great Falls Tribune

Loree Payne's basketball journey began in Havre, where she helped lead the Blue Ponies to a ton of success in basketball in the 1990's. Now, Payne is having the same impact on basketball, but as a head coach.

"Absolutely," she said. "It is a championship program lead by some very incredible people."

And a championship program is exactly what Payne is trying to turn the Lumberjacks into. And it won't be a surprise to anyone if that's exactly what she does at Northern Arizona, because Payne has been a winner every step of the way, and that's what she wants for her program at NAU.

"We want to win a Big Sky championship and be a relevant contender year-in and year-out," Payne said. "I love NAU and love being part of helping build a championship program."

To win a championship at any level is a big challenge, and, given the challenges Loree Payne has not only accepted but overcome in her long and storied hoops career, there should be little doubt that the challenge of winning a Big Sky title at NAU is, without question, not out of her reach, because, in the end, that's what Loree Payne does, it's what she's always does. She wins.

 

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