Dale Donner recalls spring days that he spent standing on the track at Bureau Valley watching his athletes practice in the sleet.
“They’d ask, ‘what are we doing this for,’” Donner said. “I’d say, ‘Because nobody else in the state is doing it. We’re making ourselves better.’ We got through to them that we’re going to do whatever it takes to make ourselves better and we’re not going to cut corners.”
Over his 35 years as a track and field coach — including 24 years as the only girls track coach in Bureau Valley history — his athletes bought into his hardworking mentality.
“He stressed that you can do it,” four-time state qualifier and recent BV graduate Saige Barnett said. “He really stressed mental toughness. He knew we had to put the work in and he pushed us to be our best every single day.
“Nobody wanted to let him down because he was so successful as a track coach. He knew what he was talking about. I think most of the motivation (to work) came from trusting what he was saying and wanting to be just as good as the year before. Not letting down the program was definitely one big factor.”
After building the Storm into a program that consistently achieves state-level success, Donner decided to retire.
He made his decision to retire in March but didn’t announce it until the team’s end of season awards banquet.
“I figured 35 years was enough time,” said Donner, who was inducted into the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame in 2015. “I hoped to go out with a bang this year and we had a great year.
“I can’t pinpoint one thing that said, ‘Hey, it’s time to retire,’ but it’s time to retire. I enjoyed it. I loved the kids. I loved the parents. I loved the atmosphere at school, but every time I thought maybe I shouldn’t retire, something would come up to remind me why I was getting out.”
Donner led the Storm to four straight sectional championships from 2005-08 and another sectional plaque in 2017. The Storm also finished fourth place in Class 1A in 2018, falling just one point shy of a state trophy.
Under Donner, the Storm won 11 conference titles, including the last five Three Rivers Conference championships.
“He’s a legend,” Barnett said. “He was inducted into the Hall of Fame for a reason. He always stressed team before individual even though from the outside it looks like an individual sport, but it really isn’t. From freshman year it’s ingrained. That’s why Bureau Valley track is so successful.”
Donner said having talented athletes that believed in the coaching staff helped build the Storm program into a perennial power.
“The kids knew the staff was going to put in the same amount of work they put in,” Donner said. “We wouldn’t just send the kids outside and on a cold, rainy day and say, ‘Go out there and come back when you’re done.’ We were out there with them. They knew the coaches would research what the other teams did, what the other teams were good at and where we could score extra points every meet, and they put in the extra work to get the extra points.
“Success builds upon success. It’s all related to confidence. The kids had confidence in the coaching staff that we were going to do the right thing for them. Whether we were doing the right things or not, they believed it so when we got to state they expected to succeed instead of hoping to succeed.”
Donner also said a strong coaching staff and supportive parents contributed to the success in his tenure.
“We’ve been blessed to have parents that support us and I’ve been blessed to have a great coaching staff — Don Guier, Jeff Ohlson, Jenny Adams, Nick Hartz,” Donner said. “The kids are the way they are because of their parents. They raised them to have trust in the coaches. The parents always supported us. We still have parents of kids who graduated 20 years ago come back to help at track and cross country meets. People like that help build the program.
“We’ve been lucky at Bureau Valley to have all that. We wouldn’t have had the success without all that.”
Although he’s retiring, Donner said he’ll still be around the program in some capacity when he’s not traveling.
“I’ll be back helping out,” Donner said. “Right now, we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do. We’ll do a little traveling. A few years down the road we may do a winter home in Florida. My brother lives down there. My cousin lives down there. We’ll come back here during the summers.
“On cold, sleety days, I don’t have to be standing on the track. I can be sitting at home in front of the fireplace.”
Kevin Chlum can be reached at 220-6939, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsEditor.