For a generation, Marshall High School has known only one head cross country coach. In fact, for some families, the connection goes back more than just one generation.
“The Huggett family: I had their kids … Paul was on my first go-around in cross country,” said the newly-retired head coach Jeff Looze, remembering one family in particular. “Forty years later, I have his kids — Claire and Alana — go through the program. His parents really welcomed us into the community, as did other parents… The parents and the community have been so welcoming from day one. When I came there as a teacher, Marshall really accepted my wife and I.”
Spanning from 1980 to 2019, Looze’s mark on the Cardinals’ program has been unmistakable. The Cardinals have won bunches of conference titles, and dozens upon dozens of athletes have represented Marshall under the tutelage of Looze at state, starting with Debbie Lang in 1986 and continuing on though Gianna Dugan’s appearance at Wisconsin Rapids just days ago.
“When I took over the program back in ‘80, there was a solid boys’ team in place, but one girl,” Looze said of his early challenges at Marshall. “After she graduated, I think I had maybe one or two. In my second or third year, I had a solid eight to 10-girl team: all of a sudden, here it goes.”
Perhaps the biggest jump-start for Looze’s program came in the mid-90s with a pair of state championships by Ryan Powell. Back-to-back individual titles from Powell in 1993 and 1994 sparked a remarkable run of consistency for the Cardinals.
“It became infectious; kids expected that that was what they should do,” Looze added. “For 19 of the next 20 years, we took kids to state … that was obviously very big for the program; it helped the program grow.”
From 1992 onward, ending the season at the WIAA State Championships has become a near-yearly tradition for the Cardinals; 23 of the past 27 seasons have ended with at least one Cardinal runner racing in the final meet of the season. In 2008, Marshall achieved a program milestone, sending both the boys’ and girls’ teams to state for the first time in its history.
“It’s a mindset. If you get the kids to believe they’re capable of it, that’s the biggest thing,” said Looze. “Those kids believed they could get there; it was their goal to get there. I hope that carries on.”
For Marshall’s head man, the most satisfying moments didn’t come from the state meet, though. Looking back at the end of each season, seeing the growth each of his runners made throughout the course of the year was Looze’s favorite part of the job.
“Seeing these kids that don’t know what they have and, all of a sudden figure out if they put in the work they could be pretty good at this,” said Looze. “That light goes off in their head, and all of a sudden, they’re hooked. That, to me, is my favorite thing.”
Though the sport hasn’t fundamentally changed over Looze’s 40 years leading the Cardinals, its growth — particularly at the biggest meet of the season — is most encouraging to him in regards to the future of cross country in Wisconsin.
“The state meet has become a tremendous event. The first time going, it was held at Yahara Hills. I remember walking up — Class A, B and C back then — there were six or eight teams in Class C and a couple of individuals from each sectional,” said Looze. “I looked around and went, ‘Wow, this is kind of a letdown.’ Sure, it’s elite people that are here, but at the same time, this is the state meet; we go to invitationals where there are more people running and a bigger pool of talent that you’re racing against. I’m really glad to see – when you go to Rapids now – thousands of people there as spectators. So many teams that are there representing their school. It’s just really awesome.”
Such a strong outlook for the sport has Looze confident in the future of cross country, both around the state and at Marshall. Making his decision official at Tuesday’s end-of-season banquet, Looze has officially handed over the reins to his now-former assistant coaches.
“I’ve told my assistant coaches: Sara (Rosewicz) and Laura (Grossman) that the program is theirs,” Looze said. “It’s a difficult decision for me, because I truly love this sport so much. But yet, my wife and my kids — certainly when my kids were younger — they put the time in and didn’t see me a lot in the fall. For 40 years, my wife hasn’t seen me a whole lot from August through October. I think it’s time for her to have her time with me in the fall.”
While Looze admits he’ll tremendously miss being around cross country and having the day-to-day interactions with the kids he coached, the allure of flexibility in retirement was ultimately too strong to pass up.
“If we want to go someplace, we go someplace,” said Looze of what he’s most looking forward to. “That freedom to be able to hop in the boat, go out in the lake and fish, just lay in the sun or whatever we want to do .. It makes life pretty simple.”