March 16, 2002.
A date that goes down as perhaps the greatest day in Montezuma-Cortez High School athletics history.
The Panthers basketball team had won 25 of 26 games on the season to claim a spot in the 4A state championship at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
As the No. 3-seed, the school from unknown Cortez, according to some befuddled Front Range people in attendance at the Pepsi Center, knocked off unbeaten Ralston Valley in the semifinals. The Panthers faced the fourth-seeded Eagles from nearby Broomfield for all the marbles the next day.
A 4A school smaller than most of its classification in Colorado, well, it didnt matter. The M-CHS Panthers shocked the state with a 46-39 win over Broomfield in the 2002 4A state championship. The win came 40 years to the day when M-CHS won the 2A state basketball title.
Its been a decade since M-CHS tasted ultimate high school sports glory. But 10 years seems like the 40 year gap between the schools two state boys basketball championships. Panthers hoops hasnt been near the level it was in 2002 the last seven years.
A lot has changed since former head coach Wade Mortensen won a state title and left Cortez in 2005 after 16 years as the head honcho.
Mortensen or Morty, as some call him, stressed defense, switching up schemes to offset opposing offenses. Hard work ethic and commitment were a must to suit up in Panther Black and Orange. That commitment took the players across the country in the summer to AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball camps.
Summer ball is when Mortensen started tasting great success.
We had a lot of committed young men there. (Men) that were willing to put in the time on the court and off the court to become good basketball players, he said.
Mortensen was an assistant in 1989 and took over as head coach in 1990. He faced a tough rebuilding task.
We were a team he was having to rebuild my junior year. We had some good kids, but he had to rebuild, Mancos High School coach Mike Glover said. By that next year, we were already competitive. Playing underneath him and seeing what he brought, is what inspired me to want to be a coach.
But what lied ahead, is legendary in Cortez.
Coaching with Wade was quite an experience. The first couple years, we didnt win a lot of games, said Larry Schwartz, who was the first assistant Mortensen hired to his staff. After we started playing summer ball, things kind of started to click after that. A lot good things happened from the plan Wade laid out.
M-CHS became a 5A/4A Southwestern League power throughout the 90s and early 2000s. The Panthers won multiple league championships and cruised through the SWL undefeated on multiple occasions as well.
Everyone bought in to the program to make it the best it could, Mortensen said. AAU camps really started to develop. You had committed parents, who were willing to take their kids to play games. It evolved. We had good assistant coaches, we had good administration, everybody. We started competing very well in the Southwestern League.
Mortensen coached sons Marcus and Ryan at M-CHS. Both went on to have successful college careers at Adams State in Alamosa and Mesa State (Colorado Mesa) in Grand Junction. Marcus was named the 4A 2002 state tourney MVP by The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News as a junior.
Along with his sons, all the basketball players at M-CHS followed Mortensens philosophy.
The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender, he said.
Mortensen left Cortez with his philosophy for the San Luis Valley in 2005 to take the same position at Alamosa High School. He relocated with his wife, Lindy, who had a very successful nine-year career as the Lady Panthers volleyball coach. Mrs. Mortensen garnered so much success, she took a gargantuan leap from high school to head college coach at Adams State, a position she still holds. Lindy coached her and Wades two daughters, Amber Mortensen and Annie Rice, at M-CHS. Rice played collegiality at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling before playing two years and graduating at Fort Lewis College in Durango.
Wade Mortensen, 58, coached Alamosa for five years before retiring as a physical education teacher in 2010. He crossed state lines to Utah to start a retirement plan in Blanding as a coach and educator at 2A San Juan. Mortensen coached his youngest son, Jess, and the San Juan Broncos to a third-place state finish.
However, Mortensens heart remained in Colorado. He returned to the San Luis Valley in 2011 as head coach of 2A Sangre de Cristo in Mosca.
Although Mortensens jobs have continued to change, his success as a boys basketball coach hasnt. Mortensen won his 500th game as a head coach on Feb. 9. The Thunderbirds dismantled Center at home, 70-34, en route to a regional tournament appearance in March this past season.
Ive heard people say, Morty has forgotten more, than what most coaches will ever know, Glover said. I think that is the absolute truth. Theres some good coaches out there, but theres so much more that Mortensen knows and understands.
Mortensen still preaches commitment, hard work and tenacious defense into his regimen after 23 years as a head coach.
Those coaching philosophies Mortensen bestowed upon his players and assistant coaches over the years have had resounding affects.
Glover and current M-CHS coach Eric White are former players. Schwartz and Bob Archibeque are former assistants turned head coaches.
Archibeque succeeded Mortensen in 2005 after being an assistant since 1998.
One of the things I learned from Wade, was he really stressed defense. We ran a lot of matchup zones, said Archibeque, who coached his three sons Randy, Kirk and Jacob alongside Mortensen. He was a very demanding coach and the kids responded. I appreciated the time with Wade. I learned a lot from him. I want to thank him for being a part of my career. Hes a good man.
White was an assistant for three years (one with Mortensen), before succeeding Archibeque in 2007 as head coach.
Ive done things hes taught me along the way. Offensively and defensively and shooting. Ive used it in some of my coaching, said White, who coached against Mortensen in a loss at San Juan in 2010. Hes someone whos a good person and a coach. I have the utmost respect for coach Mortensen. I think hes been great for a bunch of kids. I really appreciate what hes done.
Schwartz just completed his first season as the Dolores Bears boys basketball coach. It was more than 20 years ago when Mortensen gave Schwartz his first coaching job out of college.
That was my first attempt at coaching anything. I wasnt a very good coach the first couple years, recalled Schwartz. He worked with me. Wade is all about work ethic. You work hard and you get better. I learned so much about offense and defense. It was all about working hard and getting ready to play basketball.
Schwartz employs the same man-to-man and 1-3-1 zone defenses Mortensen does.
Glover has taken what hes learned to build up his young Mancos Bluejays program. Glover and Mortensen partnered for a basketball camp June 18-20, in Mancos for the second consecutive year. Not only did the kids learn new things, so did their coach.
Coach Mortensen is highly respected. I wanted his knowledge to come over here and help us out, Glover said. Hes always been a defensive mastermind as far as Im concerned. I enjoy his time being over here. The kids enjoyed him being here, too.
We know Mortensen loves to coach, but the opportunity to return to Montezuma County every summer is something he cant pass up.
They were 17 great years, the veteran coach said about his time in Cortez.
Mortensen will lead the Sangre de Cristo Thunderbirds again next year to add to his 503 total wins against 263 losses (.52).
How long will the coach, teacher and philosopher keep going?
Ill coach as long as I enjoy it, Mortensen said. I still enjoy it. Im old, but Im not that old.
Mortensen has enjoyed coaching basketball as an assistant and head coach for a combined 34 years.
If that rate of joy and success continues, people can continue to count the hundreds of wins Mortensen cements in the record books.
Reach Bobby Abplanalp at firstname.lastname@example.org.