For the past four years, Mark Branger has felt a bit disconnected.
The longtime Huntley Project boys basketball coach retired after the 2015-16 season. Since then, he’s sat in the stands as a grandfather and ex-coach.
“When I quit the basketball, I really was more disconnected because I wasn’t in the classroom, I wasn’t coaching. I still like my job as technology director, but I did miss that connection with the kids,” Branger said.
He’ll again seek that connection this year, as Branger is set to return to the sidelines for his 16th season as the Red Devils’ coach. He had two previous stints — one from 2000-07 and one from 2008-16, skipping the 2007-08 season — that resulted in a 258-106 overall record, eight state tournament appearances and the 2007 Class B state championship.
Prior to his time at Huntley Project, Branger started his coaching career at Melstone. He was the Broncs’ coach from 1988-1997, guiding Melstone to back-to-back state tournament appearances in 1995 and 1996.
“I think we did fine, but as I look back now, I would do a way better job now than I would’ve when I first started,” Branger said of his Melstone tenure in which the Broncs went 170-55.
And that’s part of the allure for Branger to return to coaching. Of course he missed the game and working with the players, but he also wants to serve as a mentor for an aspiring young coach. Branger thinks he might have that protege in Adam Johnson, a teacher at Huntley Project who spent the past two years serving as an assistant coach, one season with the boys and one season with the girls.
If Johnson, who played high school basketball at Helena High, isn’t the one to succeed Branger in the next few years, he hopes to find someone else with whom to leave the program.
“I’m hoping that this sets the stage that we can kind of build the program back up again and hand it off to whoever’s next, whether it’s Adam or somebody else, so that the program can continue to be successful beyond,” Branger said.
Branger should have a good chance to find success in his first year back. The Red Devils return plenty of talent from last year’s team that went 16-2 in the regular season, won the District 4B championship and advanced to the Southern B semifinal round. Project lost to Three Forks in the semifinal and then saw its season come to an end with a loss to Columbus in loser-out play on Saturday morning.
“That was way more difficult than I ever expected,” Branger said of having to watch the games rather than coach. “And because I know the kids fairly well and I had two grandsons, it was extremely painful and difficult and was frustrating just seeing what maybe could’ve been.”
One of those grandsons will be back next season: Noah Bouchard, a 6-foot-7 all-state forward, will be a senior. Tim Rose, who also earned all-state recognition last season, will be back for the Red Devils, as well.
While Branger hasn’t been away from the game for long, he’s seen firsthand the evolution of basketball in Montana since the 1980s. There’s likely to be an adjustment period for the coach to get re-acclimated to today’s game.
“It’s more of just a play-type style that there’s going to have to be a balance between me allowing kids to have fun and play and then also having enough structure and basic fundamentals that we execute and do things well. But there will have to be a balance,” Branger said, adding that he wants his team to focus on the basics and “taking care of the little things.”
Tempo-wise, Branger has been on both ends of the spectrum during his career but said he hopes to push the ball. In fact, he was involved in the highest-scoring game in state history, according to the Montana High School Association record books. His Red Devils defeated Lodge Grass in a 125-120 double-overtime game back in 2002.
“Even though I like one style,” he said, “you’ve got to take your athletes every single season and adapt and put them in the best possible position for them to be successful.”
“Like I told the team, I thought hard about this, because when you get me, you’re going to get all of me. I’m going to give you everything that I have to make sure you have as successful of season next year as potentially possible,” he added. “I knew doing that, it was going to take a lot of time and energy. I think being out for four years kind of has re-energized me. I’m extremely excited to get back into the game.”