DEER LODGE — Dakota Norris balances many titles at Powell County High School, but the most difficult one to manage over the past week has been “coach.”

Norris is the head basketball coach, head golf coach and athletic director of the Deer Lodge Wardens, while also teaching math classes. But on top of balancing all these duties in a time both defined and disrupted by the spread of COVID-19, being the Wardens’ basketball coach has provided the toughest challenges.

Like teams all over the state, Deer Lodge was sent home early when the MHSA cancelled Class B and the rest of the state tournaments. The Wardens' players were already headed back to Powell County when the announcement was made, fresh off a win in the consolation bracket.

“We sent the boys home on Friday,” Norris said. “I was at the Civic Center when they [initially] announced that we would be continuing the tournament. Later, I had a player text me and say, ‘Is our season really over?’ I went and checked Twitter and 406 and found out.”

The MHSA’s first announcement on Friday evening provided a sense that Norris and his team would still be in the running for third-place, but the decision to cancel the tournaments came after Deer Lodge’s players were out of town.

“The hardest part was not being around the kids when it happened,” Norris said. “As a coach, you want your goodbye and want to talk to the kids one last time. That was taken from us, not anyone’s fault. We did it the next morning, said our goodbyes and talked about it and got some closure… But the night before, there were tough phone calls.”

And while the Wardens attempted to process the abrupt end of their season, Norris has had to balance the emotional turmoil while preparing for the rest of the challenges that come with running the Deer Lodge athletic department.

Like high school staff around the state, the announcement from Gov. Steve Bullock that in-person K-12 classes were suspended for at least two weeks meant that Norris didn’t have much time for closure, and instead had to figure out what Deer Lodge’s next steps were.

“We’ll be back with online classes on Monday,” Norris said. “Being the golf coach and AD too, there was a lot of stress. At first we thought about [the basketball team,] but there’s an entire class of high school seniors who may have had their seasons taken from them.”

Norris’ preparation is an interesting look into what high school athletic staff are having to manage. In a moment that emotionally requires closure and respect, Norris has to self-quarantine, prepare math classes and brace for the impact on the spring sports season.

The isolation has meant that Deer Lodge’s AD has time to prep, but that doesn’t make the days pass by any quicker or easier.

What is Norris doing to make the clock tick faster?

“I haven’t really figured that out yet,” Norris said. “Thinking a lot, I guess. Started on all the film, and got it ready for the kids… The kids have already got their packet for the end of the season. Boring, little run here, not a lot of excitement.”

His words represent a lot of the town of Deer Lodge, who slowly adjusts to a new landscape as non-essential business begin to shut down and the community transitions into self-isolation.

In a tight-knit town of 3000 people, Norris says that the changes are just starting to become visible.

“It just started for us mainly yesterday,” Norris said. “Everyone is starting to quarantine. Everything is closing around 8 p.m. and it’s weird. We’re a tight community and everybody typically get to see each other. It’s going to be hard for a lot of us to lose that socializing.”

As the rest of Powell County readies themselves, so do the Wardens.

There are currently too many unknowns to determine what will happen with Montana’s high school spring sports, but Norris and the rest of Deer Lodge athletics will attempt to return to some type of normalcy as off-site video classes get started Monday.

The hope is that the return to “normal” can provide the closure Norris, his six seniors and the rest of the Deer Lodge basketball team are searching for.

“Not being able to talk to them at all has been tough for them and for me,” Norris said. “I haven’t seen the basketball team besides Saturday… This is one of the hardest weeks of my life. We really did think that we had a great chance at the third-place trophy. We thought we could win those next two games.”

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