Havre Daily News sports editor
Montana State University-Northern head women's basketball coach Chris Mouat is like every other basketball coach in America.
He has a distinct passion for the game, and he loves to teach it. He is competitive and driven and he instills those qualities in his players. And on top of all that, he genuinely cares about his student-athletes.
However, Mouat's rookie season at the helm of one of the Frontier Conference's most historic women's program's has been anything but normal.
First, Mouat and the Skylights had to endure a season-ending knee injury to senior forward Jayla McPherson. That, however, isn't abnormal. Coach's deal with injuries to star players all the time. That's basketball.
But early on the morning of Nov. 14, 2005, Mouat's first season as a collegiate head coach got turned upside down for good.
The van carrying the MSU-N women's team home from a trip to Portland, Ore., hit an icy stretch of Interstate 90 in western Montana and crashed. The aftermath of the accident left the Skylights' season in serious doubt. Northern lost guards Chelsie Searle and Ashlie Griffin to injuries and the Skylights were forced to forge ahead with just eight players.
The accident left a lasting impression on everyone involved, and as Mouat prepares to take the Skylights to the NAIA national tournament for the first time since 2001, he can't help but look back on the past four months in amazement.
“This season has certainly had a little bit of everything,” Mouat said. “I really feel like we have played about five seasons all rolled into one. But there is no doubt that from the time of our accident there hasn't been much that has been normal about this season.”
Indeed, as a head coach, Mouat has endured more than some coach's are faced with in 10 seasons. Getting a team not only to recover from an accident like the one the Skylights' endured is one thing, but getting them to play their way all the way into the national tournament is another story in itself.
“I give all the praise to our kids,” Mouat said. “They were resilient after the accident and they have been resilient all the way through the season. They are an incredible group of young people and what they have accomplished this year is unbelievable. I just feel fortunate to be able to be called their coach.”
Of course, being the player's coach that he is, that is exactly how his players feel about him. Mouat and the Skylights have formed a bond that goes far beyond the reaches of the basketball court. In trying times, it is impossible not to.
“Coach really cares about us as people,” MSU-N senior Jaci Heny said. “Even before our accident he took the time to get to know us. And he let us get to know him as a person, not just as a basketball coach.”
And you won't find a single Skylight player who doesn't echo Heny's sentiments when it comes to their head coach.
“I think coach Mouat is a very good basketball coach,” said senior Camille Gardner. “But what really shows it is how much he cares about all of us. During all the difficult things that have happened to us this season, he has always been there for all of us.”
What is ironic about that is that it isn't just the players who have gone through a tough time this season. Mouat has endured a lot of the same emotional hardships right there with his players. And while the players found strength in their coach and each other he found his in them as well.
“The kids,” he said. “They have been there for me every step of the way. After the accident they were calling to check on me as often as I was calling to make sure all of them were doing OK. Throughout this season, they have just been unbelievable. It just goes to show what kind of quality student athletes and people we have in our program. And it is what makes this team so special. We have developed a very strong bond and we all care about each other a great deal.”
Of course, Mouat also has a coaching lineage to draw on, and he learned to be a head coach at this level from many different places. Mouat graduated from Helena High and was an assistant coach there up until 1998. He attributes much of his coaching style to Helena legend Steve Keller.
Mouat got his first head job in 1998 when he took over the Butte High girls program. He was at Butte High for four seasons before becoming an assistant under Meg Murphy at Montana Tech in 2002. In 2003, Mouat moved to Billings and became an assistant under Brian Henderson for the Rocky Mountain College women's team.
“I have taken a little bit from everybody I have worked for and they have all been great influences,” Mouat said. “Steve Keller, Meg Murphy, I can't ever thank those people enough for what I have learned from them and for all they have done for me.
“And all the things I learned from coach Henderson at Rocky,” he added. “He really preaches a family atmosphere when it comes to his basketball program and that has really helped me out this season. I have also had tremendous help from Kelvin Samson and Shawn Huse. The things they have done for me and for our program this year, it has just been unbelievable.”
And with everything everyone has done for Mouat and the Skylights this season, Mouat has done just as much for his team and for the program. MSU-N won an astounding seven straight games after the Nov. 14 accident. But then the Skylights started 2-5 in Frontier Conference play. Since that time, Northern has gone 6-2, knocked off two nationally ranked teams and qualified for the NAIA national tournament.
“Coach Mouat has been great this season,” sophomore forward Michele VanDyke said. “He really cares about us on and off the court. And on the court he really knows the game of basketball. All season he has put us in the best possible situations to succeed. He really understands how to get the most out of us.”
And succeed the Skylights have. In retrospect, no one, including Mouat, was even sure if the team could carry on after the accident. But because of his attitude and that of his players, what was once a season of despair has turned into a coach's dream.
“We get it from each other,” Mouat said. “Everybody on this team has looked out for each other all season. One of the things we have said, and it sounds cliche, is that basketball is only a game.
“We want to win every game badly and these kids and myself are as competitive as anybody,” he added. “But on Nov. 14, basketball really did just become a game for us, and everybody on this team including myself really understands how important and precious life is and we all have really just tried to make every day a good day.”
While the memories of the accident will never go away, Mouat's first season as a collegiate head basketball coach will end with nothing but pure joy, no matter how the Skylights do in Tennessee this week.
“It has been hard and it has been a tough year as a first-year head coach,” Mouat said. “But the kids have never used anything that happened to them as a crutch or an excuse. I have learned as much from these kids as I have from anybody. I have learned to bounce back up again and to not take the end result of a game as seriously as I used to.
“We have all learned a lot from each other,” he added. “We have had the lowest of lows and the highest of highs this season and going to the national tournament is a great reward for all of it. But what is even more special is this team and this season will be with me for as long as I coach. The bond we all have and these players are something that I will never forget. It has been an amazing journey with this team, and I feel so fortunate to be the head coach of such a great program and to be the coach of such great young people. Because first and foremost, these kids are all great people. And as a coach, those are the type of players you love to have on your team. And they have made this season something I will never forget.”