Championship chase

Long-time coach has MCHS poised for a deep post-season run

A little of Dean Smith's run-and-jump defense here, some Bobby Knight motion offense there, a dose of Jerry Tarkanian's player rapport and, for good measure, some of the overall philosophy from "The Wizard of Westwood" himself, John Wooden.

Like any profession, coaching basketball is a constant learning process, and long-time Moffat County High School hoops coach Craig Mortensen has lifted tactics and strategies from some of college's best.

And why shouldn't he? After all, the four aforementioned coaches have won a combined 16 NCAA tournament championships.

A state championship has eluded Mortensen thus far, but he's been successful nonetheless, taking two teams -- one boys' and one girls' team -- to the state final four in 31 years, and amassing more than 400 victories.

Although winning championships is the end goal for most coaches, and Mortensen is no different, he said his team's season means more than just the win-loss record.

"I really enjoy probably the teaching aspect of it, seeing the kids perform and grow," he said. "I remember the little things that happen with each team. Those are the things that I'll remember, the relationships with the players."

Maximizing players' ability and potential also counts.

"We want to get the best out of the people we have," he said.

Mortensen coached the high school boys' team for 19 years, before switching to the girls' squad in 1994. Last year, his Bulldogs had a 25-1 record, and a final four appearance.

This year, he has his team poised to make another deep run in the post-season. After Saturday's 69-30 blitz of Eagle Valley in Gypsum, the Bulldogs improved their record to 14-1, the lone blemish coming in the championship game of the Nike Tournament of Champions, played in Arizona and featuring some of the country's best West Coast teams.

Throughout the season, the Bulldogs have shown an ability to play any style, whether that's a run-and-gun track meet, or a slow-down, grind it out half-court contest.

Offensively, Mortensen said his preferred style is up-tempo, but that he adjusts his philosophy according to personnel. He makes no compromises on the other end of the floor, however.

"The better level of play," he said, "the better level of defense."

This year, his players have been an extension of Mortensen on the floor, employing a fast, fierce, all-over fly-trap D.

Mortensen, a Sanford native, played point guard in high school and college at Adams State College in Alamosa. At 5'9", Mortensen said his role as a player was limited -- distributor and floor general.

"I'm not very tall and I didn't have much of a choice," he said. As a point guard, he needed to know everyone's responsibilities, and lead his team. The role helped shape him as a coach.

"A point guard," he explains, "should understand the whole game."

Mortensen has been married to wife, Margie, for 32 years. They have four daughters -- Jinny, Erin, Emily and Laurel.

When he began coaching, Mortensen had an eye on the fast track to bigger jobs. However, Moffat County has become home in the last three decades.

"When I first started, I had aspirations for that," he said. "But, over the years I've enjoyed what I've done here. I've had some opportunities, but I thought it was best to stay here."

So, what would be the perfect ending to this season for Mortensen? Cutting down the nets at state is as good as any, he said.

"Winning it all," he said. "That's the ideal. We want our seniors to have a good year. ... If we got all the way to the final game and won it, that would be special."

Joshua Roberts can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or jroberts@craigdailypress.com.

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