Montana boasts a proud tradition in girls cross country, from Kathy Jarvis to Zoe Nelson to Annie Hill. Though dozens of harriers have anchored their names in history, arguably none have matched the career of Makena Morley.
The former Bigfork standout, who now competes for the University of Colorado, became only the fourth Montana female in state history to win four consecutive state cross country individual titles, joining Havre’s Jarvis, Ruby Yellowtail of Lodge Grass and Kalispell Flathead’s Nelson in the rare feat, though Morley’s running career didn’t begin on a great note.
“When she was a sixth grader is when I first saw and said, ‘You need to run.’ I saw her running in P.E. because I was her P.E. teacher, too, so she decided to go out and try cross country,” said longtime Bigfork educator and coach Sue Loeffler. “In the summer, her mother ran with her, and her mother at that time was the only one running, nobody else in the family was running. Makena would cry and sob and just hated it. She just hated it. And now look where she’s at. It wasn’t easy at the very beginning.”
Morley owns Class B’s top two times in the three-mile state meets, finishing in 16 minutes, 33.20 seconds as a senior in 2014. Her dominance in the event led Morley to four straight Montana Gatorade girls cross country runner of the year honors, becoming only the eighth female athlete in the program’s history to win the award four consecutive times.
“She’s very driven, sets goals and knows what she wants and knows what she needs to do to reach those goals. She’s not afraid of hard work,” said Loeffler. “She’s also, besides a leader, she’s also a very good student. She’s very good academically.”
“I can only count on her leadership with what I saw in high school with the younger kids and with her own teammates,” Loeffler continued. “She led a lot by example more so than the verbal part, but she was very, she would send little notes to inspire them or she just came up with the neatest things to help her teammates be successful, too.”
Morley was also impressive on the track, winning Class B state gold medals in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs as a freshman in 2012. She also placed sixth in the 400-meter run.
As a sophomore, Morley finished runner-up to Townsend’s Chiara Warner in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200, but returned to the top of the podium in each the following season, while also pacing Bigfork to the 1,600-meter relay title.
Morley battled anemia her senior season, but managed to win the 3,200 while also finishing runner-up to younger sister Bryn in the 800 and 1,600. Both Morleys ran on Bigfork’s State B record-setting 1,600-meter relay, which finished with a time of 4:01.71.
“Probably one of the neatest things that showed me, not only character, but what other people thought of her character, at the state track meet when she was a senior, she had gone through being anemic, so she wasn’t 100 percent at all. Her sister beat her in the 1,600 and the 800, but really, the 3,200 was more Makena’s race,” said Loeffler. “When she was coming down the finish line to finish, everybody in the stands was standing and clapping. I have never, ever seen that at a state track meet. That was her senior year at Kalispell Flathead and it was probably the most moving thing I’ve ever seen. That just says a lot for her character right there. She wasn’t 100 percent, she knew she couldn’t run the times she had, but she knew she needed to do the best she could. That’s just her.”
Makena Morley finished her prep career with four individual cross country championships and the accompanying Gatorade honors. She was also a three-time cross country all-American with a third-place finish at the prestigious Foot Locker cross country national championships. On the track, Morley earned seven individual gold medals, part of the Morley family’s 25 golds, and was twice a high school all-American.
Morley ran one cross country season at the University of Montana, winning her first race and capturing the Big Sky Conference championship in her third competition. After placing eighth at the NCAA Mountain Region Championships, Morley advanced to the NCAA Championships and finished 97th overall.
After transferring to the University of Colorado, Morley qualified for the next three NCAA cross country national championships, placing in the top 50 each season, capped by last fall’s eighth-place all-American finish as the Buffaloes won the NCAA women’s championship.
On the track, Morley has earned four all-American finishes for the Buffs, missing a fifth by one place in the 2017 NCAA Outdoor Championships. Earlier this spring she earned a pair of first-team all-American accolades at the NCAA Indoor Championships, placing sixth in the 3,000 and seventh in the 5,000, crossing the finish line in 9:06.74 and 15:42.67, respectively.
More accolades could certainly be in Morley’s future, including potentially being named Montana’s Amateur Athletic Union 2019 Little Sullivan Award winner as Morley is one of the four female finalists, but every achievement to date is no surprise to her former coach.
“Not really because she is so determined to achieve what she wants to achieve, she will work as hard as she needs to to reach those goals, so it does not surprise me in the least, no,” said Loeffler. “She is an amazing young woman and still lives up to her morals, does what she knows she has to do to be successful and doesn’t allow other people to influence her. She’s strong in what she believes in.”
The 2019 Montana AAU Little Sullivan banquet will be held Saturday, May 4 at the Red Lion Hotel in Billings. Tickets to the event are available until May 1 and can be purchased by emailing email@example.com or by calling (406) 489-0251.
All current card-holding adult Montana AAU members, plus Montana media representatives, are eligible to vote for this year’s winners by emailing selections to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday, April 22.
Montana AAU Little Sullivan Award 2019 finalists
Alisha Breen — Choteau, MSU Billings basketball
Hailey Copinga — Billings Skyview, Rocky Mountain College volleyball
Makena Morley — Bigfork, University of Colorado cross country and track and field
Sydney Stites — Bozeman, Iowa State University softball
Jayse McLean — Great Falls CMR, North Dakota State University baseball
Tres Tinkle — Missoula Hellgate, Oregon State basketball
Brandon Weber — Forsyth, MSU-Northern wrestling
Tucker Yates — Colstrip, Montana State University football