When Harold Huff saw the running talent coming through the proverbial pipeline at Sequim Middle School, with some of the top runners in his daughter Valerye’s class, he jumped at the chance to coach them.
“I thought I’d like to coach those kids three or four years, see if I was cut out for it,” Huff said. “It was supposed to be a four-year run.
“It turned into an 18-year run.”
That run comes to an end this fall. Huff, weary of the travel associated with leading the Sequim High School cross country program — one that’s produced two state individual champions, 11 league titles, eight district championships and 15 team state berths — called it a coaching career earlier this year.
“What I’ll really miss will be the races,” Huff said last week. “It’s fun to be with the kids, fun to see how they do. I’ll miss not being part of that. I ain’t going to miss the bus rides there.”
Going to away meets often included two to four-hour bus rides, he said, and while practice schedule was doable, the weekend road journeys were not.
“The travel was getting brutal on me — it was really beating me up,” Huff said.
“I accomplished what I wanted to. I think I made it a very successful program.”
Huff took over the cross country head coaching position, one that includes both boys and girls teams, in 2001. The Wolves, behind stalwart Kjerstein Bailey won a league title. In 2002, with a team of Bailey, Leanne Schaafsma, Natalie Jones, Tara McCallum and Huff’s daughter Valerye, Sequim earned a second league title along with a state 3A meet berth; Sequim finished 15th overall.
“All year long we were jumping over injuries,” Huff recalled. “I knew we were good enough to make it to state. That was a good group.”
The early years tough for some Sequim runners, Huff noted, as they adjusted to his philosophy that more mileage would eventually produce faster runners.
That philosophy didn’t change much over 18 years.
“Each year that became less of a problem,” Huff said.
You have to bend a little bit based on your talent,” he said, but the kids still had to put in the miles.
Stephanie Dinius (nee Marcy), recalls first meeting Huff between her eighth and ninth grades, a few moments after struggling to complete the North Olympic Discovery half-marathon.
“(Huff) came up to me afterwards, asking ‘You’re coming out for cross country, right?’ I felt like he saw something in me, at least someone who was interested in the sport,” she said.
Dinius, who went on to become a state champion in both cross country and track (1,600 meters), recalled making the rather brutal transition to Huff’s workouts.
“I had heard that the mileage was going to be a lot more than what we were doing in middle school. We did six miles in our first practice,” Dinius recalled. “On our way back, I was running with (assistant coach) Stephanie Forshaw, asking, ‘Are we almost back? Can we stop and walk now?’ It was really hard. I didn’t know if I was cut out for it.”
Over the next four years, starting in 2003, Sequim High’s girls steadily improved. Thanks in large part to Dinius, the Wolves placed 13th, then 12th, then seventh and, in 2006, fourth at state.
“Very fond memories (of high school,” Dinius said. “I had so much fun. It was not just an extracurricular, it was a real family. Coach Huff was … such a cheerleader; he made us all feel like a million bucks.”
Dinius went on to win the 2006 cross country state title, a track and field title (1,600 meters) and a Borderclash title pitting the best runners from all classes from Washington state and Oregon. Huff coached the budding superstar all along the way, Dinius said.
“I wouldn’t have done it without coach Huff,” she said.
That spring-boarded Dinius into a top collegiate career at Stanford University, where she ran varsity for the cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field teams for four years at Stanford. She was named team captain three times while earning three Academic All-American honors and four Athletic All-American honors. Before an injury put an end to her competitive career, she ran in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.
And when it came to advice — particularly in the first few of her college years but before big races years afterward — Dinius said she’d call on Huff.
“I just remember (Huff’s) voice booming, ‘Drop the hammer,’” Dinius said. “He always believed he had more in the tank than we believed … that there’s always another another gear.”
Sequim’s boys program started to win big, too. In 2005, Alex Smyth — who would go on to run for Division I Florida State and help them place second in the nation — won a district title. The next year, Kenny Russell did the same and helped the boys place 10th at state.
A watershed year for Sequim High cross country, 2006 saw the first of back-to-back state berths for both SHS programs. At the end of its run, in 2008, junior Allison Cutting won the 2A state title and Russell won a second district crown.
In 2012, another crop of strong boys runners put Sequim among the best crews in the state. Sequim’s boys earned four consecutive years placing in the top 10 among all 2A schools, capped by a second place finish at the 2014 state meet — the best finish in the program’s history.
Only when a round of sickness affecting several team members at districts kept Sequim from that 2014 title, Huff recalled. Led by Brendan Despain, who twice placed in the top 10 at state individually, Sequim had a strong lineup that included Mikey Cobb, Jackson Oliver, Chris Jeffko, Peter Ohnstad, C.J. Daniels and Wendall Lorentzen.
“We had some great teams,” he said.
That’s a tribute to the athletes, he noted, considering the rather grueling workload each of them handled.
“No disrespect for those who work at (other sports, but) … the nature of the workload of cross country is as tough as it gets,” Huff said.
Huff would know. He’s a two-time Boston Marathon competitor and Hawaii Ironman finisher, and only a lingering injury kept him from running with his athletes in later years.
Huff said he’d always have a tough time recruiting: In the fall, good Sequim athletes have plenty of other sports to choose from, and he’d often lose several good middle school distance runners to sports such as soccer or swimming.
A couple he convinced to shift sports after an initial year playing other sports — Waverly Shreffler and Audrey Shingleton — become two of his top runners.
Huff took a year off from his SHS head coach position in 2016, essentially switching roles with assistant Mihcael Cobb, before coaching two more years. In his final season, he saw four more athletes — Murray Bingham, Jazen Bartee, Liam Byrne and Riley Pyeatt — earning state berths, with Bingham and Pyeatt placing 13th, respectively.
The former Sequim coach said he got plenty of help from a number of parent volunteers and great connections with families. Besides Smyth and Dinius, a number of SHS runners have gone on to compete at various collegiate levels and at least two — Dinius, at a Division III school near Boston, Mass., and Anton Clifford, at Clackamas High School in Oregon — who have gone on to coach.
In the 17 years under Huff as head coach and one year as assistant, the Wolves went 189-92-1 in meets. The Sequim coach saw 70 different athletes — 35 boys, 35 girls — qualify for state meets, individually or as a team.