The first day of the state track and field meet is relatively laid back for Morgan Sulser. It’s a straightforward routine: Run, qualify for the finals and enjoy the moment.
But on Day 2, when it’s all on the line, Sulser blocks out distractions like a Zen master, keeping her eyes on the prize with total consolidation of effort.
“It’s that second day that’s the big day for me,” Sulser said during preparations this week. “That morning I don’t really talk to anyone. I’m pretty focused.”
That concentration allowed Billings Senior’s Sulser to set an all-class record in the 100-meter hurdles at last year’s State AA meet in Bozeman. It was her second straight title in that event, and it helped the Broncs win their fourth consecutive Class AA team championship in dominating fashion.
A year later, Sulser and her teammates begin their quest for a vaunted five-peat Friday at the AA meet at Memorial Stadium in Great Falls. And Sulser is gunning for more hardware, too.
“Every day we’re getting better and every day we’re pushing each other,” Sulser said. “You can’t slack off because every day there’s someone making sure you’re right there. We have great coaches that we really trust, and we know that we’re doing the right things and that we’re going to be peaking when we need to be peaking.”
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Sulser, who stands just 5-foot-3, doesn’t believe she ran what can be considered a “perfect” race when she set the 100 hurdles mark at state last year. Though she’d been chasing it all season after falling short by one one-hundredth of a second as a sophomore, she was convinced she missed out on the record again.
But it was better than anybody’s ever done it in Montana. From the gun to the tape, Sulser left everyone behind in the blaze of superb pace, brilliant stride and streaming red hair.
“I went through my normal routine like I always do,” Sulser recalled. “In the marshalling area I was thinking about the things that I needed to focus on to be able to run the time I wanted to run. The conditions were great, the competition was great -- it seems like everything kind of fell into place at the right time. Timing is everything, so I was really lucky it happened that way. My body was ready, it was early in the day and it was a good race.
“I remember finishing and thinking, ‘I didn’t get it, I didn’t get it.’ And then I looked over at my dad and he kind of smiled. So I thought, ‘Ok, maybe …’”
And then her time was revealed: 14.11. The all-class mark -- 14.34 set by Claudine Robinson of Missoula Hellgate in 1989 -- was shattered.
“I was so surprised,” said Sulser, who also won the 200-meter crown last year. “I’ve never gotten emotional like that after competing. I’m not really an emotional person. But when I went over and hugged my dad … I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until after it happened.”
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How does Sulser pack such a big punch into her diminutive stature? Aren’t taller, longer-legged athletes always the best hurdlers?
“When I was going through the recruiting process, every coach would ask me how tall I was,” she said. “I’d tell them 5-3 and they’d be like, ‘Oh …’
“It’s something people have in their minds, that you have to be tall to be a hurdler. But I do have really long legs for my body, and I think that helps me a lot.”
Sulser’s talent is innate, too.
Her dad Mark, formerly the head football coach at Senior High and now the school’s activities director, was a standout hurdler at Glasgow. As was her uncle, Dennis, a former administrator in School District 2. Both set records with the Scotties.
Moreover, Sulser’s older brother Ben won a state wrestling title at Senior. Her younger brother Gabe was a member of the Big Sky All-Stars that went all the way to the Little League World Series in 2011.
Sulser was a gymnast early on, as well as a soccer player growing up competing with YSA and Magic City teams. It wasn’t until seventh grade that she gave track and field a try. And it didn’t take long for her to gravitate toward hurdling.
“I wasn’t even planning on hurdling until the coach asked me to try it and see how it goes,” Sulser said. “I think that’s when I really started to love it a lot and realize it could be my thing.”
And she’s only gotten better -- even after surgery to repair a broken vertebra and herniated discs in her back sidelined her as an eighth grader.
“Some kids have that athletic nature where they can do anything, it seems like. And she’s one of those kids,” said Broncs coach Jerry Weik. “But I think it comes back to her determination not to be beat. She gets in there with the mindset of, ‘I’m going to win and there’s no two ways about it.’”
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Fresh off winning the Midland Roundtable female athlete of the year award, Sulser, a senior, looks to go out on top one last time this weekend in Great Falls -- be it in the 100 hurdles, the 300 hurdles, the 100, the 200 or the team standings.
The Broncs have plenty of firepower to win their fifth title in a row, with previous champions like Christina Aragon (distance) and Taylor Mims (jumps) seeking to win more first-place medals. (Aragon, incidentally, is back after suffering a broken/dislocated elbow at a recent gymnastics event in Boise, Idaho).
Sulser’s best time in the 100 hurdles this season is 14.45. A perfect ending might be to break her own record in what is her signature event. But she’s not looking that far ahead yet.
“Physically, I feel really good,” Sulser said. “Mentally, it’s been a little different this year with graduation and everything coming so close. But that’s how it is for the seniors every year. So it’s kind of about eliminating distractions and being able to focus in on Friday and Saturday.”
However it turns out, Sulser has committed to join the track and field program at the University of Montana, where she’ll study elementary education beginning this fall. First things first, though.
Said Weik: “Can she beat that 14.11? I think she can. Whether she will or not depends on the conditions and the wind and everything else. But I know there won’t be an athlete out there that tries harder than she will.”