New coach draws on hard-hitting football experience to boost Demonettes

January 14, 2019 GMT

Nate Morris has been here before.

He just didn’t realize it until the parallels were presented to him.

As the head girls basketball coach at Santa Fe High sat in his office talking about the unique road he took to his current position, Morris was asked if his experience as a linebacker with the University of New Mexico football program from 1989-90 helped him in dealing with the rebuilding project that is the Demonettes’ program.

Morris paused for a moment before the epiphany hit him.

“You’re right — it’s the same thing,” Morris said. “I didn’t even think about that. It is the same.”

When Morris transferred from UCLA — one of the top football programs in the nation at the time — to UNM in 1988, he encountered a program that was in the throes of winning just nine games in a five-year stretch. Perhaps the symptom of the larger problem with the Lobos came when he started practicing with the team.

“I was always taught that you go 100 percent in practices,” Morris said. “I can remember some of the offensive linemen getting upset at me because I was playing too hard in practice. I was like, ‘We’re practicing! This is how you practice.’ If you practice like this, you play like this. And it pissed them off.”

Fast forward 30 years later, and Morris earned his first job as a head coach at Santa Fe High — a program that won just nine games during the 2017-18 season, was on its fourth head coach in as many years, had its best returning player (senior Taylor Salazar) coming off a torn ACL and a group of players who were short on fundamental skills, much less varsity experience.

The difference, though, was he had much more influence over this program than the other.

“What I learned from that experience and what I brought in here was trying to change the culture in our practicing habits, our game habits, our everyday habits,” Morris said. “It has to be 100 percent. We can’t just walk through practice.”

While Santa Fe High has a 5-10 record so far this season, it has shown equal parts promise and struggle as the majority of the Demonettes are getting their first taste of varsity action. Larry Chavez, Santa Fe Public Schools athletic director, said Morris was hired to help develop a stronger foundation for the program, as well help improve the overall skills of the players.

So far, Chavez feels Morris has succeeded.

“We have seen an increase in player development and in fundamentals,” Chavez said. “The win-loss record might not be on the right ride, but we can see the progress being made in the right direction.”

As great as the correlation between the two disparate athletic teams related to Morris, it still begged one lingering question: How does a football player become a girls basketball coach?

The answer is pretty simple when you’re the father of five children, and four of them are daughters. More to the point, Morris usually found himself coaching whatever team his girls were on, whether it was soccer or basketball.

Morris also said that his job as a manager with a wine and spirits distribution company was not as fulfilling as he would have liked, and he felt the competitive tug at his heartstrings.

It led Morris to take on a middle school position at Lyndon B. Johnson Middle School in Albuquerque for five years before leaving his job and taking on a varsity assistant post to Lee Kettig at Albuquerque Sandia, a rival of Santa Fe High for the past five years, for the 2017-18 season. Morris knew Kettig because some of Morris’ players went on to become Lady Matadors and he sometimes afforded Morris usage of the gym for club team practice.

When Morris took the job, he made it clear that he wanted to become a head coach, and soon.

“I told [Kettig], ‘Look, I’m going to be honest with you,’ ” Morris said. “ ‘I just want you to know that, if something opens up next year, I’m gonna apply for it. My goal is to be a high school coach.’ So, he understood that.”

It just so happened that Santa Fe High’s job opened up when Cindy Roybal resigned in late February, and Morris threw his hat in the ring even though the pool of applicants was deep in strong backgrounds. The list included then-Valencia head girls coach Joe Estrada (now at Española Valley), former Pojoaque Valley, Santa Fe Indian School and Santa Fe High head girls coach Lanse Carter (now at Los Alamos), former Capital head girls coach Jonathan Salazar and Bobby Romero, who was the interim head coach at Española Valley and is now at Mesa Vista.

“I saw the initial list, and I didn’t think I was going to get it,” Morris said.

Chavez, though, said Morris made a very strong impression on the search committee with his interview, and it felt Morris was the right person for the job considering the circumstances.

“It was unanimous that his personality and his professionalism were strong points,” Chavez said. “Even though he didn’t have a lot of high school experience, he had years of experience coaching AAU. Whenever we made reference calls, all of them came back glowing. When we put the pieces of the puzzle together, we knew this was the perfect fit for the program at this time.”

What Morris inherited was a roster that had just four players with varsity experience and a group of junior varsity and C-team players that needed plenty of work on their fundamentals. One thing Morris noted was that a lot of the players did not play basketball in the off-season. When he talked to the girls about playing in the spring with a club team designed specifically for the program’s players, they were surprised at his plan.

“A lot of these girls didn’t have the fundamentals that should have been taught over the last three or four years,” Morris said. “It’s not through any fault of their own. I’ll be point-blank, whoever was here — whether it was Carter, Cindy or whoever it was before that — had these girls behind in my eyes and all of my coaches’ eyes. So, we teach a lot of fundamentals.”

There were plenty of struggles at the start, but the Demonettes started to pick up Morris’ system. Mari Fernandez, one of the few returning varsity players, said the team’s overall development was significant.

“I was really surprised,” Fernandez said. “When we played in the Lobo camp [in Albuquerque], we played really, really good. It was without Taylor, too. She is one of our top scorers, but we did it without her. I thought, ‘We’re going to be a really good team this year.’ ”

After a promising 4-4 start to the season, the Demonettes hit a snag by losing six of their last seven games. While there were blowouts to Rio Rancho (61-17), Artesia (67-19) and Pojoaque Valley (68-30), Santa Fe High also showed that it can be a dangerous team when hitting all cylinders. The Demonettes led Gallup, ranked fourth in Class 4A, 28-26 at the half before a bad third quarter led to a 56-48 Lady Bengals win. Against Española Valley on Jan. 9, the Lady Sundevils could never quite shake Santa Fe High before finally pulling away for a 64-50 win.

“Their game plan was to be physical and use their size against us,” Española head coach Joe Estrada said. “They looked like a pretty good team to me.”

The game also highlighted the program’s growth. Freshman Kabreya Garcia led the Demonettes with 11 points in her varsity debut, as she moved from the C-team to the varsity in just the first two months of the season.

“Where Kabreya was back when we tried out versus where she is now, she’s grown,” Morris said. “I wish I would have made the change sooner. At the time, when you watched Kabreya play, she’s playing good. Then you see her keep going like this [on an upward trend], and you think, ‘Well, maybe she can help us.’ ”

It’s those moments of progress that has Morris holding out hope that Santa Fe High can make a run at the Class 5A State Tournament.

More than anything, Morris sees his own experiences as an athlete helping him now as a coach in a different sport.

He’s been here before, but Morris is in a better position to affect change.