By Debra Vaughn Smith

Talented Falcon newcomers (left to right) Sarah Lavallee, Karen Summers, Laura Widman, Jawea Harder and Rachel Ross are setting the pace for a successful season.

Freshman Sarah Lavallee had her choice of virtually any college in the country. A six-time state champion in track and field, she still keeps a box stuffed with recruiting letters from coaches offering lucrative scholarships, access to some of the nation's best training facilities, and the exposure of big-name programs.

Despite the many opportunities, Lavallee, and at least five other talented prospects including heptathletes Laura Widman and Karen Summers, hurdler Jawea Harder, and mid-distance stars Jenny Ng and Rachel Ross, turned down big programs for Seattle Pacific University.

So how does a smaller university manage to snag some of the country's top female recruits? The answer isn't a surprise for those who are familiar with the program's history. Just look at the coaches.

SPU coaches have attracted top talent for years. Head Coach Ken Foreman, an international legend in women's track and field, has developed seven Olympians, 27 national champions and 160 All-Americans during his 50 years of coaching. He worked with current Falcon Distance Coach Doris Brown Heritage, a five-time world champion, when she was a student at Seattle Pacific College in the '60s. Assistant Coach Jack Hoyt, an Olympic Trial qualifier in the decathlon, also benefited from Foreman's tutelage as a former Falcon team member.

But sometimes even a reputation for coaching excellence isn't enough. The Falcons began recruiting earlier and more aggressively after the team experienced a slump at nationals in the mid-'90s. The coaching staff sought talented athletes who fit the SPU community and had "the winning attitude."

Physically gifted, intelligent and mature, Widman was one who had what the Falcons were looking for. A competitor since third grade, she grew up training on the Washington State University track near her hometown of Colfax, Washington. The last thing she wanted, however, was to attend a small school.

"I always pictured myself competing at a Pac-10 school," she says.

Her attitude changed after she and Hoyt developed a friendly correspondence over e-mail. Hoyt encouraged Widman to explore all that SPU had to offer her. Following a campus visit, the top-ranked heptathlete made her decision over fish tacos with Hoyt at Seattle's Taco Del Mar. "It was such a good fit," she says. "I just fell in love with SPU."

Even with aggressive recruiting, Hoyt says Seattle Pacific's limited scholarship money can be a challenge. To counter the recruiting advantage of schools with bigger budgets, Falcon coaches have sought academic scholarships as a way for athletes who are also good students to fund their education.

Widman, for instance, is on a partial academic scholarship. "In addition to athletics, they have high expectations for me as a student," she says.

Modest training facilities can also be a recruiting drawback. Hoyt remembers when Lavallee asked Foreman about SPU's small and irregularly shaped track: "Dr. Foreman pointed to his heart and said, 'This is where champions are made, not on the track.'"

That may be true, but Falcon coaches also create ways to get their athletes the opportunities they need for success. If that means specially driving some like Lavallee to West Seattle to train in a stadium, the coaches manage to do it. "I don't think I'm missing out on anything," says Lavallee. "If I need something, they'd find a way to get it."

For many athletes, the individual attention they receive at Seattle Pacific is a big advantage. "The coaching staff gets to know you on a more personal level," says Ross, an All-American in cross country last fall. "In a larger school I would be just an object; here they actually care."

For Lavallee, the coaches "are interested in me as a whole person, not just as an athlete. They want to take me as far as I want to go."

"We've taken people to the Olympics before," Hoyt says of the SPU program. "We dream as big as any program in this country. That's our philosophy: making people into champions."

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