BOZEMAN — Everything Loree Payne touches turns to gold.
In Havre in the 1990s, Payne cemented a legendary high school basketball career by scoring just shy of 2,300 points (according to the Montana High School Association) and helping the Blue Ponies win a state championship in 1997.
That led to a terrific four-year stint at the University of Washington, where she was a team captain, a two-time all-conference performer and set the school record for career 3-pointers.
Then, as a coach, Payne guided NCAA Division III Puget Sound to a 130-58 (.691) record in seven seasons, including two trips to the national tournament. She was twice chosen Northwest Conference coach of the year, and was a finalist for national D-III coach of the year honors this past season.
A sparkling résumé, to be sure. But what lies ahead might be her biggest challenge.
On April 7, Payne was announced as the new head women’s coach at Northern Arizona, which has suffered through 10 consecutive losing seasons. Payne comes to Flagstaff, Arizona, with an immaculate record of success, but she knows the road ahead will be demanding.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Payne, 35, said during a recent telephone interview. “It’s going to take some time, it’s going to take some patience, but I think if I get the right people on board, lay that foundation and get players to fit into a winning mentality and share the same values that we’ll have as a staff and as an athletic department, we can turn it around.”
The Lumberjacks went 9-21 overall and 5-13 in the Big Sky Conference last season. Interim coach Robyne Bostick was not retained.
Payne, a 1999 Havre High graduate who had apprenticeships at Northwest Nazarene, the University of Portland and Washington, built a tradition of success at Puget Sound on the strength of an up-tempo style she plans to employ at NAU. That, she figures, is the best way to keep pace with the upper echelon of the Big Sky.
Being a Montana native, Payne said she’s well-acquainted with the league.
“It’s a tough conference, but I think having a team that is up-tempo offensively is something that I’m very comfortable with,” said Payne, who won a school-record 26 games at Puget Sound this past season.
“I think also defensively we want to really force teams to play out of their comfort zone. That’s something we’re excited to be able to implement.”
But Payne’s first order of business will be to instill a new culture at NAU, and that starts with coaxing the right amount of leadership from her veteran players: Payne has guard Olivia Lucero, who averaged nearly 15 points per game last year, returning to the lineup, and guard Raina Perez, who was one of the top freshmen in the Big Sky, also comes back.
“We have some talent,” Payne said.
Payne admitted to the last couple weeks being a whirlwind of change, but she’s hit the ground running.
“Obviously the priority items will be to get my staff in place and get out on the road recruiting, but my team is my No. 1 priority, and I want to get to know them a little bit before they head off for the first part of summer and just start building that relationship,” she said.
“It’s really about establishing a family-type atmosphere and building upon transparency and authenticity to make sure our kids are bought in to what we’re doing and really empowering them to take some ownership of the program and move it forward in a positive direction.”
Payne is recognized as one of the top high school talents in Montana in the past 25 years. She more than proved her worth as a player at a major Division I program, and went on to become a well-respected — and highly successful — college head coach.
She’s embracing her next test with conviction and purpose. And Northern Arizona is betting on Payne to get the job done.
“Everything is happening very quickly. There’s a lot of moving parts but I’m starting to settle in and get comfortable,” Payne said. “I think the people at NAU and the community are very optimistic and they want to make things comfortable with this transition.
“NAU is a very special place. The community support behind it is phenomenal. I think the experience that I’ve had at a mid-major Division I school and a big-time Power Five school, and then also having an opportunity to be at a smaller private school, I think that made me a really good fit.
“I’ve been at a place where there were tons of resources, and then I’ve been at a place where I’ve really have to battle for support. I think I fit the people at NAU, and the community.”