Chris Susee doesn’t care if his coaching style at Emerald Ridge High School rankles his track and field athletes at times.
Susee is admittedly stubborn and demanding. He’d rather push his athletes hard to win a race than worry about winning a popularity contest.
“I’m probably the most competitive person out there,” Susee said. “I’d say I could be difficult to work with.”
For three years, Susee has worked closely with Kayla Stueckle to help turn a speedy jumper into an elite hurdler.
During those three years, she landed five Class 4A state track and field titles and 12 state medals in all, including three championships and a third-place finish at the state meet last month.
Stueckle’s marks in track and field, along with her fancy footwork on the soccer field, helped make her The News Tribune’s girls high school athlete of the year.
Dan Stueckle couldn’t have imagined his daughter’s rapid rise without Susee.
“Chris Susee at Emerald Ridge got a hold of her and refined her more and more,” he said. “Being the motivational person that he is, I think he brought out the best in her.”
Call it tough love. During the team’s awards banquet, Susee was overcome with emotion when it came time to talk about Stueckle and another Emerald Ridge hurdling standout, Cory Okazaki.
“I knew Kayla in junior high and to see her develop to where she is, I was kind of speechless,” Susee said. “During the banquet, I couldn’t say anything. I’m emotionally attached to Kayla and Cory both. As demanding as I am, I’m also very caring to my kids. I care about how they do not only with me but beyond me.”
Stueckle’s next stop is the University of Washington, where she earned a full athletic scholarship.
She’ll bring an Emerald Ridge résumé that includes three state titles in the 300-meter hurdles, including a time (42.34 seconds) as a junior that set a 4A state meet record, was one-hundredth of a second off the all-time state mark and was ranked 10th in the country that year among high school hurdlers.
Last month, she also won the 100 hurdles (14.81) and long jump (18 feet, 1 inch) and was third in the 200 meters (25.60) at the state meet in damp conditions.
She also finished with a 3.95 grade-point average.
“Kayla was, in our opinion, the young woman in the state of Washington that we had to have,” Huskies track and field coach Greg Metcalf said. “First and foremost, she’s an athlete. She’s full of exciting potential. We look at our team and she definitely fills a need for us.”
Metcalf remembers visiting the Stueckle (pronounced Stick-el) home in Puyallup last fall and seeing the whole family dressed in Huskies purple.
“I’ve been a Husky (fan) my whole life,” Stueckle said. “I wasn’t interested in going far away.”
Stueckle also has been a fan of soccer. She excelled in the sport from an early age, played club soccer and also was a star forward on Emerald Ridge’s team that went undefeated during the regular season last fall. She earned first-team honors, with younger sister Kimmie, on the South Puget Sound League South Division team.
But, in the end, track won out. Stueckle “fell in love with hurdling” in seventh grade at Stahl Junior High School under the direction of track coach John Diseth. Once she began competing in high school, her Saturday track invitationals began conflicting with her club soccer schedule, so club soccer got the boot.
In junior high, Stueckle’s athleticism and speed helped her succeed in the hurdles. In high school, Susee focused on refining her technique and helping her push her limits.
“Our success came from him pounding the fact that you can’t work with half an effort,” Stueckle said. “He’d say, ‘I don’t care how pure talented you are, you are not going to have it handed to you.’ He made that clear from day one.”
Susee figures he learned his coaching style from George Wilfong, his hurdles coach at Puyallup High School.
Back then, it was Wilfong pushing Susee to second-place finishes at the state meet in the 110-meter high hurdles in 1991 and ’92. Susee would later run hurdles at Western Washington University.
“All of the kids called him General George,” Susee said. “He was extremely demanding.”
Stueckle said that it took more than one season to understand Susee’s methods, stoic nature and sense of humor.
“He actually taught at the junior high school,” she said. “He’d seen me all through junior high and said he was really excited to coach me in high school. To be honest, I was a little apprehensive. I’d seen him as a teacher. He doesn’t really show a lot of emotion. That’s something you gain when you get to know him. Three years of track season, we got really close.”
So close that when Susee thinks too much about it, cracks begin to show in his gruff exterior.
“Deep down, he’s a softy,” Stueckle said.
“It’s a gift for the UW to be getting her,” Susee said. “I don’t think they quite understand what they’re getting. She’s going to push and push to get where she wants to be.”