BOZEMAN — Winning has always been second nature for Loree Payne. But now that she’s at the helm of an extensive rebuilding project at Northern Arizona, Payne finds herself putting patience above an immediate payoff.
There will be no cutting corners at NAU for the Montana native — who most remember as a legendary high school player at Havre High School in the late 1990s — though the 130-58 record she forged in a stint at Division III Puget Sound might suggest a quicker fix for a program that hasn’t had a winning season in 10 years.
Success has proven elusive in Payne’s first season with the Lumberjacks, who are 3-10 and 0-2 in the Big Sky Conference after being swept over the weekend in road games at Montana and Montana State.
“We’ve lost more this year than I had in the last two years combined,” Payne noted Saturday after NAU was routed 81-39 by the Bobcats.
In high school, Payne scored more than 2,000 points and guided Havre to a state championship in 1997. That led to an all-conference career at the University of Washington, where she finished as the Huskies’ all-time leader in 3-point field goals.
As a coach, Payne served as an assistant at Northwest Nazarene, Portland and Washington before being hired to take over at Puget Sound prior to the 2010-11 season. All she did there was win at a 69 percent clip, make two D-III national tournament appearances, win three conference titles and capture two Northwest Conference coach of the year awards.
When interim coach Robyne Bostick was not retained at NAU after posting a 9-21 record last season, the powers that be in Flagstaff, Arizona, took a chance on the up-and-coming Payne to be the one to lead the Lumberjacks back from the depths.
Payne has begun that process with the knowledge that it will take a good bit of time.
“Changing a program culture is hard. It has its ups, it has its downs,” Payne said. “We’ve lost a lot of close games, and we have a lot of youth. Right now we’re still in a situation where we have three players that had collegiate experience heading into this year, and a lot of young kids are getting minutes.
“So we’re asking a lot out of the young ones, and right now we’re just trying to get them experience to build for the future, but to continue to keep the kids confident and play together and play hard.”
Cause and effect: The weekend swing through Payne’s home state was nothing sort of frustrating for NAU.
The Lumberjacks had a 21-point lead against Montana on Thursday night in Missoula only to see it evaporate in a 70-62 overtime loss. On Saturday, the Jacks seemed to leave their energy on the bus, and they were victimized by 16 Montana State 3-pointers as the Bobcats won for the 31st consecutive time at Worthington Arena.
“There are a lot of challenges that come with building a winning mindset,” Payne said. “There were a couple games that we probably should have won if we hadn’t played not to lose, and that mindset shift is one of the most difficult things that we’ve experienced this year — just changing that to where you expect to win instead of being scared to lose. Obviously we’re not there yet.
“The Montana game was a great example of that, where we played well in the first half, and then as Montana started to come back — as good teams do — you have to continue doing what was giving you success.
“We got back on our heels and really started to be very passive and slowed the ball down, and we weren’t able to work our transition offense that was having so much success for us in the first half.”
Then, against the Bobcats, Payne said her team’s effort and execution did not represent “who we are.”
Right now, the Lumberjacks are led by a trio of veterans. Senior guard Olivia Lucero, senior forward Kenna McDavis and junior forward Kaleigh Paplow make up more than 60 percent of the team’s scoring output.
Incidentally, those three are the only players on the active NAU roster with any Division I experience.
“The biggest thing that we’re trying to change is our culture,” Paplow said. “Just finding a winning mentality, it’s been tough. In the past we haven’t had that. We have a lot of new kids, a new staff ... we’re just trying to get on the same page.”
Payne’s return to Montana reunited her with family and friends, but the coach said it was little more than a business trip as NAU began the Big Sky Conference portion of its schedule.
Payne has laid out a formula for success. The only question is: How long will it take to get there? Her team, for one, has accepted the rebuilding effort as a means to an end.
Palow said Payne “knows when to be intense but at the same time she knows how to encourage us. She knows how to get the best out of each and every player.
“I know our record isn’t great, but any team that sleeps on us in the Big Sky is going to regret it because we have a lot of potential. We’ve just got to put things together and play full games.”