By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
A few years ago Jason Wirt liked to joke with his wife and friends that he would one day be the head girls basketball coach at Havre High, when and if head coach Dennis Murphy retired.
But there was no punch line to the joke. It is now reality.
Wirt, a former Havre High and Montana State University-Northern standout, has been named Murphy's successor as varsity girls coach for the Blue Ponies
The homecoming has Wirt filled with anticipation and excitement for the upcoming season.
"I am excited to be coming home and being able to coach at a school that has great support from the community, a solid administration and all the things in place for a successful school and basketball program," he said.
Wirt was born and raised in Havre and played three varsity seasons for the Blue Ponies. His Ponies' team appeared at two state tournaments, placing fourth when he was a sophomore and third in his senior year. He was a two-time all-conference and all-state player in basketball for Havre as well as an all-conference football player.
After graduating from Havre High, Wirt attended Montana Tech to play basketball for the Orediggers under head coach Rick Dessing.
During his first two seasons for the Diggers, he earned all-conference honors and was part of a regular-season conference championship. He left Tech after his second year and transferred to Northern to pursue a teaching degree. While at Northern, he was a part of two 20-win seasons and a trip to the NAIA national tournament in Tulsa, Okla., and earned all-conference honors both seasons.
After his playing days were over, Wirt coached at Havre Middle School and was the first director of Havre's youth basketball program while finishing up his degree.
"Jason has experience coaching from third- to 12th-graders," Havre High athletics director Dennis Murphy said. "He has worked with a variety of age levels.
"The good thing is that Jason is not new to our program. He's coached at the junior high, coached in our camps and is from Havre."
Wirt has spent the last four years in Ronan, teaching high school science and coaching both basketball and football.
He has been the Ronan High girls varsity coach the past two seasons, guiding a youthful team without a senior to an 11-10 record.
The solid foundation he built at Ronan made leaving for Havre very difficult, he said.
"It was the toughest decision I've ever had to make," Wirt said. "To leave 12 girls coming back, who did everything I've asked, was tough.
"I've been with those girls the last two years, and everything we'd done in the off-season and all the preparations for next year, to not see it through is tough."
So tough that Wirt wrestled with the decision to leave Ronan for Havre. When he finally decided to make the switch, his players took it pretty hard.
"Those kids did everything I asked," he said. "They did workouts in the summer and a core group of kids that lifted and worked out every day. I also had a very good assistant in Gale Decker, who had 30 years of experience and who I really relied on."
With all of that pushing him to stay, the pull of the Havre job was just a little greater.
"I wasn't planning on leaving," Wirt said. "But I didn't think I could pass it up at the time that it came open."
As difficult as it was to leave, Wirt is filled with enthusiasm to continue the Pony tradition of success.
"I've still been following the Ponies since I've been gone," he said. "I've watched them play the last two years and one thing that impressed me is how hard they play."
Said Murphy: "I think Jason is one of the up-and-coming young coaches in our state. I had the opportunity to watch his teams play at the tip tournament the last two years and was very impressed at how well they were prepared for that early in the season. His teams executed well and did the little things to be successful even if they weren't the most talented."
Wirt will bring his own style of coaching and, more importantly, his own expectations of his players and team.
"I'm not set on solid style, especially being a young coach," he said. "I like the idea of adapting to what's coming back. One thing I do know, Havre has some shooters coming back that can stretch the floor and open up things for penetration. In a perfect world, I would love to get up and down the court and play a style that people like to watch. But it really comes down to personnel."
As for expectations, he has three basic principles: Be committed to the common goal of being a team and a family. Be good people in the classroom, on the basketball floor and in the community. Be committed to getting better every day.
Since he holds even higher expectations for himself, Wirt wants to come to Havre to at least meet with perspective players during the spring to go over a summer schedule
"I am hoping that we can get in about 20 to 30 games this summer so they can get used to what I expect and get a head start," he said. "I'm not a big camp guy. You can get just as much out of one good hour of individual work every day instead of going to a bunch of camps."
Until then, Wirt will rely on this year's freshman coach, Bill Rice, to handle open gym in the spring and help oversee things until he can get his family moved here in the summer.
"It's a good thing to have Bill helping me out," Wirt said. "I've talked with him and I know he can handle things."
Other necessities for Wirt will be filling out the remainder of his coaching staff and setting up the annual Havre High basketball camp.
Wirt is married to former Skylight Heather McGlothen and the couple have a daughter, Brooklyn.