Former Husky takes the reins of SHHS cross-country program

Scott Swanson

After 2½ years as an assistant cross-country and track coach, Andrew “Keebler” Allen has gotten the nod to lead Sweet Home High School’s cross-country program.

Before we go any further, let’s get that name out of the way. Allen, 31, bears – even he admits it – an uncanny resemblance to Ernie J. Keebler, the animated elf who acts as spokesman for Keebler cookies.

That fact was not lost on his high school charges, who within days of their meeting had assigned their new assistant with a new moniker: Keebler. As a more senior coach noted later, “the smartest thing he did was play along. That ensured his acceptance.”

Coincidentally, Allen is also a baker – he owns and operates Two Dam Bagel and Bread Co., which sells baked goods, cookies included, at local farmers markets, Thriftway and Buzz’d Espresso. But that’s essentially been his sideline, a way to pay the bills.

Allen’s consistent focus has been developing local runners, something he got involved in immediately after arriving in Sweet Home in the winter of 2011.

He himself grew up in Sweet Home, graduating from Sweet Home High School in 2001 after four years on the cross-country and track teams.

“Justin Temple, (coach) Allan Temple’s son, got me into cross-country,” he recalled last week. “He said, ‘Hey, you like to run. You should join us.’ I was in seventh grade. I did not have a clue what I was doing, but two days later I was running a race.”

“Us” turned out to be Temple and Allen through junior high, he said. But when they got to high school, they ran for Coach Dave Martin, a former University of Oregon runner, who taught them the ins and outs of cross-country and running distance on the track. Billy Snow, whom Allen is replacing as cross-country coach, was head track coach in those days.

Allen trained with the cross-country team at Eastern Oregon University as a freshman, but “life caught up to me and I had to focus on school more,” he said. He eventually graduated from Boise State University, in 2008, with a degree in finance. After a few years working for U.S. Bank in Boise and Portland, he decided to get into self-employment, starting a bakery in La Grande, near where he had attended Eastern Oregon.

“I was making a profit, but not enough to sustain me, so I decided to come home, where I’d have a place to stay,” he said. “I called Coach Snow and asked him if he needed a hand. I went to his office, which I remembered pretty well, and I was surprised to see how gray his hair was.”

After a year Snow began assigning Allen increased responsibility, giving him a say in training and scheduling, and Allen was put in charge of the distance runners for track and field, fully responsible for their training and development.

Both the boys and girls cross-country teams qualified for the state meet last year, the fifth straight year for the girls, and junior Jakob Hiett placed third as an individual in the state meet. Then, in track, Hiett went on to place second in the 3000 and third in the 1500.

“He’s kind of spun that out to me,” Allen said of Snow’s tutelage.

“Now the team has officially been handed off to me. In all honesty, the three-year process was a good thing. I would not want to be thrown into that, even with my knowledge of Sweet Home cross-country and track. You have to adapt to the current kids, who the current teams are. We do things a lot differently than when I was in high school.”

Allen said some of the biggest challenges of coaching in Sweet Home are typical of economically depressed communities with small schools: “You have to train kids that anything worth having you have to work for. We are pulling kids from an area in which they sometimes need to be retaught that hard work is worth it, that it will move you forward in life.”

Cross-country is based on that principle, Allen said.

“For one it’s fun, and two it’s worth it. People are scared, but once they start it, they don’t want to leave. We are a hard-working sport, no doubt about it. Our easy days are everybody else’s Hell Week. But we don’t just run. That’s a myth. We have challenging workouts, or play games.”

He noted that camaraderie is “very high” among runners, even between competing teams.

“It’s the tightest team sport there is. Everybody has the same goal in mind: Everybody’s trying to improve. They’re all goofy, looney, but it’s fun. Yes, there are hard workouts, but we’re also kind of the biggest goofballs there is.”

That commitment breeds success, he said. By his count, more than half of the students who have competed in cross-country when he was running and since have gone on to finish a college degree.

“We’ve always been above the 50 to 60 percentile, but I want it to be higher,” he said.

He said his expectation is to continue Sweet Home’s success in the sport, which includes regular trips to the state meet for the boys and an almost unbroken line of appearances since 2008 for the girls.

“The attitude we ingrain in them is that we are a hardier bunch,” he said. “The focus since Dave was coach is that we always want to be in the top 10 at state. We’re one of the best, that’s it. It’s not cockiness.”