BILLINGS — Among the many congratulatory messages to Mandy Morales was one from former longtime Missoula Sentinel girls basketball coach Karen Deden.
Following a storied career at the University of Montana and a brief flirtation playing overseas in Greece, Morales joined Deden’s staff at Sentinel and stayed there five seasons, eventually becoming the junior varsity coach during the program’s run of three consecutive Class AA state championships from 2012-14.
When word got around that Morales would be taking over the Huntley Project girls basketball program, Deden, who stepped down in April following 21 seasons with the Spartans, texted: “No technical fouls.”
Apparently the competitive but still mild-mannered Morales has some fire on the bench.
“I think I might have had a couple (technicals) there,” Morales told The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com Tuesday with a laugh. “But I’ve never been tossed, I will say that. Like I was telling my dad, a coach never stops learning, just like a player. I’m always learning.”
Morales has been an assistant coach at Huntley Project for the past two seasons. When Connor Novakovich resigned recently as head coach, Morales said she was approached to see if she was interested in taking over. She said she was, and Monday the Huntley Project school board approved her hiring.
For Morales, it’s a return to where her star-studded basketball career began. She played one season for the Red Devils before transferring to Billings West, where she helped the Golden Bears win Class AA state championships in 2002-03 and 2003-04. Morales was named the Montana Gatorade player of the year in 2004.
Then, after initially committing to Arizona State, Morales shined at Montana. She finished her career as the second-leading scorer for the Lady Griz with 1,959 points, trailing only Shannon (Cate) Schweyen, who poured in 2,172 points.
She also ranks No. 2 on the career assists list at Montana, tied with Skyla Sisco at 587. (Brooklyn Lorenzen had 701 assists.) Morales was named the Big Sky Conference’s player of the year for the 2005-06 season and the 2008-09 season, her last as a Lady Griz.
Morales has been coaching youth AAU teams at Project for the past three years and was coaching the middle school team. A chance to guide those players, as well as the current Red Devils she’s been working with, was finally enough incentive to get her to think about taking a head coaching job.
The girls sports programs have been largely successful at Project. The softball team is the defending Class B-C state champion and has been a perennial contender in recent years. And coach Iona Stookey has won 12 Class B state championships with the volleyball program.
The key for Morales, as it has been for the other girls basketball coaches at Project, is to tap into that athleticism and transfer it to hoops. The Red Devils were 7-11 two seasons ago, but didn’t win a game last season.
“I think we can start building something out here, there’s a lot of athletes out here,” Morales said. “Iona’s built an amazing program here, like a dynasty pretty much, and she all starts from the bottom, she gets those younger kids involved and that’s kind of what I want to incorporate here, as well.”
Morales has a wealth of experience to draw on, from her playing days to her time on the bench at varying levels, which includes one year at Montana State Billings with Kevin Woodin, who was her coach at West. She said she’s also received plenty of advice from brother Kevin Morales, who has won four Class AA boys basketball championships in his seven years at Billings Skyview.
In the end, though, she’s just glad to be back where it all started for her.
“I thought it was kind of cool, wrapping it all around and ending up here,” said Morales, who works with the Project school district as a behavioral specialist in the Comprehensive School and Community Treatment program. “I’m just excited being a part of the program and teaching these girls life lessons, let alone teaching them how to shoot.
“I just want them to have that winning mentality, and not just in the sport, but in life, you know, women to have a say and to have a voice. I’m just really excited, I really haven’t processed it yet. Just with all the texts and the love and support that I’ve had from this community and family and friends, it’s all working out really well.”