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Running: Morgan gets one last laugh at expense of critic

A girl named Sue Schaefer was running her first cross-county race in Clarence in 1974 - a time when there was no separate team for girls in the sport. She even had to run with a boys' singlet, with a t-shirt underneath.

"A boy from Williamsville North or South - I forget which - ran up to me and said, 'Who do you think you are?' " she remembered more than 40 years later. "I thought, 'I'm keeping my mouth shut. I'm not going to say anything. You are learning as you go along.' You had some things to live up to as a girl, because you had to prove yourself."

History has forgotten the identity of that critic, but that runner knows exactly who she is now: someone who was a great runner in high school and college, and a successful coach for many years after that.

That's the short version of why Sue Schaefer Morgan will be inducted into the Western New York Running Hall of Fame this year. The ceremony will be held at Elmwood and Bidwell in Buffalo on Sept. 1.

Morgan did her first bit of competitive running, in a manner of speaking, in elementary school. Gym teacher Howie Johnt - a longtime Clarence basketball coach - staged sprint races for the youngsters. Morgan loved them and did well in them. She dabbled in running in junior high, but never really got serious about the sport until she arrived at high school. That was in part because she had gone through other options.

"I wanted to be a cheerleader, but I wasn't musically inclined," she said. "I was cut by the basketball team. I had two sisters who could do everything in sports. They said to me, why don't you go out for the track team?

"If you could fall in love with a sport, that was what happened."

Morgan ran some track in the spring of 1974 as a freshman, at a time when girls weren't allowed to run more than 400 yards in competition. She then tried out for cross country that fall, and was the only girl on the roster. Morgan had done her homework, studying every book she could find on the subject of women's running.

The Red Devils had been state champions in the sport in 1970, but the final members of that team had graduated at that point. That left a squad that she remembers as less than good.

"We were the most pathetic team," Morgan said. "Coach (Dave) Johnson would get into this weight-lifting room that was about 10 by 10, and he would ream us out. For some reason it clicked with me. It was a catapult for me. I was determined to get better.

"I don't think any of the boys took things too seriously. I would start on a nine-mile run and just go. The boys would be puddle-stomping to get other guys muddy, or in the winter throw snowballs at the others. I became like a sister to them eventually."

Running wasn't too cool for a teenage girl in the mid-1970s, but for whatever reason Morgan kept at it - even after fracturing her leg in cross country as a sophomore. During the summer she'd meet up with male friends and run eight or 10 miles at a time. Not many high school girls in the country were putting in that sort of effort.

Morgan kept at it, and success followed. The state changed the rules to allow girls to run a mile and two miles, a great distance for her. Morgan competed in some invitational meets around the region, and did well. One of them was in Rochester, and Johnson had Morgan try some new workouts that emphasized speed in short bursts.

"I broke the national girls high school record in the two-mile run," she said. "That workout gave me confidence."

Morgan won the state championship in the mile and two-mile events. That earned her invitations to some national meets, including one at UCLA in which she won the 3,000 meters. She even qualified as an alternate in the mile in a meet against the Soviet Union.

All of that success came at precisely the right time. Colleges were changing their athletic programs to allow more female participation because of Title IX. Morgan therefore had a chance to earn an athletic scholarship.

"It was like a snowball coming in," she said about the rise of women's sports. "When I went on my spring break, I looked at the University of Kentucky but it was too big. I went to Eastern Kentucky next, and they were having the Ohio Valley Conference Invitational when I was there. I told my parents when I got home I wanted to go there."

It turned out to be a good decision. Morgan was an All-American in cross-country and track for Eastern Kentucky, and was a conference champion in track at three different distances in 1981. She still owns the meet record at the 3,000 meters for the Ohio Valley Championships. It all helped her gain admission to Eastern Kentucky's Hall of Fame.

"That first year, I went to the Olympic training camp in Squaw Valley," Morgan remembers. "Nike was on the cusp of the growing of women's running. When I did well, Nike was there. They kept sending me stuff. After freshman year, I kept giving things to my mom and my sisters."

When Morgan graduated from college, she said she had had her fill of competition. Morgan and husband Bill raised four daughters, and they all participated in track at college. She's currently living in Barnesville, Ohio, where she's done some coaching. Right now Morgan works with the runners at East Richland Christian School in St. Clairsville, Ohio.

It's always interesting to hear from the pioneers of any activity, even if they don't think of themselves that way at the time. But Morgan really did help pave the way for women to fully participate in running on the scholastic level.

"When I won the regional title in cross country, I assumed I'd go to the state championships at Bear Mountain," she said. "But the athletic director looked at me and said no. The section didn't do their part to get the teams organized. All of the things that were hard just fueled my fire.

"It's just a privilege to be in the Hall of Fame, and it will be an honor to come back home for it. For those kids who aren't sure that they can do anything, I was one of those kids. I was looking for somewhere I could get plugged in, and I found it."

Morgan will join Jim Nowicki and Alex Trammell in this year's class of inductees.

The finish line

After more than 12 years, I've reached the end of the road of writing running columns for The Buffalo News. I've retired from the newspaper, which should give me more time to take part in races around town. Members of the running community not only seemed to enjoy these columns, but they were quick to give me story ideas and almost always willing to talk about the running side of their lives. The words "thank you" are insufficient to describe my warm feelings about the many good people I have encountered in writing more than 300 stories.

Buffalo News sports reporter Amy Moritz takes over this space in two weeks. I've known Amy since she was around 16, and she's enthusiastic about her new task and the sport. Amy even has competed triathlons - uncharted territory for me. I plan to be her biggest fan and occasional helper and contributor.

In the meantime, see you at the next race.

Race calendar

* RUT Race, 3.4 miles, Bond Lake Park at 2571 Lower Mountain Road,Lewiston, 7 p.m. Monday, 439-0316.

* Jackhammer Trail Series, 3.2 miles, Chestnut Ridge Park, Orchard Park, 6:30 p.m.  Tuesday.

* Moonlight Run, 5K, Island Park, Williamsville, 8 p.m.  Wednesday, 863-4747.

* Daemen Athletics Summer Track Series, Sweet Home High School, Amherst, 6:15 p.m.  Thursday.

* Metro 10, 5 & 10 miles, Buffard Park, Albion, 8 a.m. Saturday.

* TRZ Races, various, Frewsburg Fireman's Grounds, Hazard Street. in Frewsburg, 9 a.m. Saturday, 397-2519.

* Sunset Bay Experience Reach the Beach 5K, Sunset Bay Beach Club, Irving, 9:30 a.m. Saturday, 934-2087.

* Cross Country Crusade, 5K, Knox Farm State Park, East Aurora, 10 a.m. Saturday, 238-6263.

* KIA Memorial Road March 10K, Chestnut Ridge Park, Orchard Park, 11 a.m. Saturday, 392-7256.

* Rally in the Valley, 5K, Fireman's Park, Allegany, 11 a.m.  Saturday, 307-3893.

* Sertoma 5K, Oasis Pavilion at Hyde Park, Niagara Falls, 9 a.m.  Aug. 20, 284-0010.

* Run for Row, 5K, Como Lake Park, Lancaster, 10 a.m. Aug. 20, 891-3941.

* Telegraph Road Race, 14:18, 8647 Telegraph Road, Gasport, 2 p.m. Aug. 20, 261-7880.

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