Here we go, kicking off the countdown of my Top 10 favorite stories from the 2017-18 school year. No. 10, which was originally posted on Dec. 13, profiles Lyle-Pacelli girls basketball coach Justin Morris, who had moved to Omaha for love and career but remained as coach during the season.
The story has a great postscript, with the Athletics finishing the season as Class 1A state champions. Morris resigned after the season ended, and -- as you will read below -- he will be married later this summer in Minnesota. The Team Is In Minnesota, The Coach Lives In Nebraska
The Lyle-Pacelli girls basketball team is interesting in lots of ways. The Athletics are ranked No. 1 in Class 1A, for example, and ran their season record to 6-0 Tuesday night with a 71-43 victory at Randolph. The team is a cooperative effort with players from Lyle (a public school in a community of 500 within a mile of the Iowa border) and Pacelli, a small Catholic school in nearby Austin.
It’s rare to have a top-ranked team and it’s rare when public and private schools work together to form teams, as Lyle and Pacelli do in lots of sports.
But here’s the most interesting thing about the Lyle-Pacelli girls basketball team: The head coach lives in Omaha. Which is in Nebraska. Which is not in Minnesota.
Austin native Justin Morris has been the Athletics head coach for several years now, and the highlight of his tenure was the team’s first trip to the state tournament in 2015. The three seniors on this year’s roster – Kristi Fett, Brooke Walter and Kendal Truckenmiller – are hoping for a return visit to state. To get there, the team will need to keep working and improving … even when their head coach isn’t around.
Morris was absent for Tuesday’s game, the first one he has missed this season. He will be back for games Friday at home vs. Glenville-Emmons and Saturday in Decorah, Iowa, vs. Crestwood High School from Cresco, Iowa. Omaha is 300 miles from Austin, a drive of four hours-plus.
“It’s a unique situation. It’s crazy, it really is,” Morris said during a phone interview from Omaha on Wednesday. “I get a little uncomfortable about it, because it’s not about me and what I do. This group of kids is where the story is.”
That’s a fair point. Morris’ coaching and working lives are 300 miles apart because he feels so strongly about his players. He has been coaching since the current seniors were in seventh grade, and he didn’t want to end his tenure until the Class of 2018 played its final season. Thus the occasional absences and the many drives back and forth from Omaha. And when this season ends, so will his coaching career at Lyle-Pacelli. (In this photo, taken as the final horn sounded on the Athletics' state championship at Target Center, Morris is seen leaping into the air on the far left.)
But why? And how? Those are the obvious questions. The answers start back in 2015 when the Athletics went to state. The team beat Mountain Iron-Buhl in the quarterfinals before losing to Ada-Borup in the semifinals and Minneota in the third-place game. At a welcome home rally for the team, Morris was interviewed by a reporter from KAAL TV in Rochester. Her name is Megan Stewart and they ended up dating.
Fast forward a bit. Morris and Stewart are now engaged. When she took a job at KMTV in Omaha earlier this year, Justin also made the move and found employment in his chosen field as a senior vice president of a banking company. They will be married next Labor Day weekend in Megan’s hometown of Lakeville.
Brad Walter (Brooke’s dad and Morris’ uncle) is a former head coach of the basketball team and the current top assistant, taking over when Justin isn’t on hand. Walter directed things Tuesday at Randolph, and Morris is very grateful to have such a seasoned pro on the coaching staff.
“Brad’s really the story,” Morris said, handing off another assist. “He started the youth program. … We’re approaching this collaboratively, Brad and I, we’re really co-coaching. I’ll be back as much as I can, but Brad’s got the reins when I’m not there.
“Brad has got all the ability in the world to run things. We run the same plays, the same defenses and have the same philosophy since I took over in 2012. We have a known commodity in terms of what our philosophy is, our offense, our defense, what our culture is.”
The Athletics are highly entertaining to watch. Fett is a 6-foot-5 center who averages 27 points and has signed with Minnesota State Mankato. The remaining starters -- Walter, Truckenmiller, Olivia Christianson and Abby Bollingberg, as well as the players off the bench – are quick with the ball and always hustling. Fett scored 25 points at Randolph, Bollinger had 19, Walter 13 and Christianson nine.
The players sometimes start practice without any coaches in the gym, but having grown up playing with each other they have built a strong bond.
“We talked about it at the beginning of the season,” Brooke Walter said. “We have to trust each other and everybody has to lead. We have to step up and we know no matter what happens, if (Morris is) there or not, we have each other and we know what to do.”
Fett said, “There are times at practice when we have to get things rolling and keep our standards up. We know we have to be responsible. It’s unique but it makes us really close, too.”
Lyle athletic director Jamie Goebel said Morris came to him earlier this year and explained that he was moving to Omaha but still wanted to coach one more season.
“As an educator you always think about ethical things, the community effect,” Goebel said. “Ultimately it came down to what’s in the best interests of the students. I was confident in what he and Brad and (volunteer coach) Terry Nelsen will be able to do this year, and it seemed like the right decision for Lyle and Pacelli. He’s been very forthcoming, very transparent with me and the girls and we worked through some of the details.”
Lyle-Pacelli lost to Goodhue in the Section 1 playoffs the last two years (with Goodhue going on to win the state title each time). In the latest Class 1A rankings by Minnesota Basketball News, Lyle-Pacelli is No. 1, Goodhue is No. 2 and Hayfield (another Section 1 team) is No. 5.
Lyle-Pacelli, which hasn’t lost a Southeast Conference game since 2012, has built its reputation by giving young players opportunities to play and grow. Of the team’s current veterans, Morris said, “We started moving them up when they were in seventh, eighth, ninth grade. They started having success and it built on itself.”
Morris travels in several states for his job, so driving between Omaha and southeast Minnesota on Interstates 80, 35 and 90 is no big deal. The basketball team’s schedule has been set up to make it easier for him to be in the gym, especially for the biggest games.
“We’re a family,” he said. “From day one when I took over we talked about creating a family culture. It’s about all of us together. We’re in this thing together and we’re going to make it work together. We talk every day about how life is about choices. I made a choice that I was going to get engaged and get married to the love of my life, and she decided she’s going to move to Omaha.
“I’m thankful they still want me involved, I’m thankful Brad is as good a coach as there is anywhere. Because it’s all about the kids.”
All those miles, all those practices, all those games. All that work will, hopefully, take the Athletics back to the state tournament.
“I met the love of my life the last time we went to state,” the coach said, his smile obvious through the phone line all the way from Omaha. “If we get back, maybe I can win the lottery or something.”Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn