HAVRE — Walynn Burgess wasn’t expecting a new challenge, but he’s never been one to back down.
Burgess, the former MSU-Northern basketball player and head boys basketball coach at Class C North Star, accepted the same position at Havre High last week, as first reported by the Havre Daily News. Burgess replaces former Blue Pony standout and head coach Curt Leeds, who stepped down after six seasons with the program.
“(Havre athletic director) Dennis Murphy had called me earlier in the month and said that Curt had turned his resignation in, so they were wondering if that was something I might want to do,” Burgess said. “He knew that North Star was close to my heart and that it would be hard to leave, so I had to sit and think about it for a week or two before I got my application in. After thinking about it, I knew it was the right time and place for me. I’ve been part of the Hi-Line community for the last 10 years after playing basketball up here for Coach (Shawn) Huse at MSU-Northern. There’s something about the communities up here, they love basketball, love the type of basketball that I love to play — hard-working, getting after it — it was just talking to me that, ‘Hey, maybe it is time to make that jump.'”
After graduating from Payson High School in Payson, Utah, Burgess attended Yakima Valley Community College, competing on the men’s basketball team. After two seasons at YVCC, he took a year off, assuming he “was done playing basketball,” before former junior college competitors told him about their time playing for Huse at MSU-Northern.
Burgess says “the Hi-Line stuck with him” after college, leading him to a junior high coaching position at St. Jude’s before he landed as an assistant at North Star under former Knights standout Cody Donoven. That’s when fate appeared to play its part.
“I was the junior varsity coach, but (Donoven) stepped down. I was doing my student-teaching at the time when (North Star athletic director) Brian Campbell asked me if I was interested in the job, but shoot, it was two weeks before the season started,” Burgess recalled. “I ended up taking the North Star job four years ago, two weeks before the season started. We turned it around. My first year we had six wins and this year, the fourth year, we ended up going 18-6 and making the Northern C divisional for the first time since 2006.
“It was a great opportunity, I loved being out there, loved the community and it was a great start for me. Having all that support you get while you’re at the smaller Class C schools, it made me realize how great people can be in the community. I knew I really wanted to stick with this coaching thing and it’s been stuck with me ever since.”
Burgess takes over a Havre program that went just 3-15 overall last season, 0-6 in league play, and has won only seven games in the past two years. He knows he and the Blue Ponies have their work cut out for them but believes they can emulate the turnaround he oversaw at North Star with the Knights.
“The crazy thing is, the seniors and juniors coming up next year, I actually coached them when they were in fifth, sixth and seventh grade on travel teams,” Burgess said of the Blue Ponies. “I have a pretty good idea of them. I also coached middle school football up here for a few years, so this group that’s coming in right now, I have a pretty good understanding of who they are and what they’re capable of. That was another one of the pros on the pro-vs.-con list. I knew there were kids here that would buy into things from the start. That was an added bonus.”
Familiarity will play a key role in the attempted resurgence of a proud Havre High program, one Burgess says fans “are ready to see return to a highly competitive team,” much like the ones Leeds led to the State A semifinals in 2015 and 2016. Burgess believes his experience, from Utah to community college in Washington, and especially his participation on the Hi-Line, can get the Blue Ponies back on track.
“I learned a lot from Coach Huse. He was the one that made me really take my leaps and become more of a man than just a boy. He taught me a lot of stuff off the court, how to deal with this, dealing with time management. I still help him with summer camps and things, and we talk every week. There’s not a week that goes by that we don’t chat about hoops. He’s helped me learn that way,” said Burgess. “Learning through District 9C, every night it’s tough competition. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing a smaller school or one of the bigger schools. Every night, each team was going to bring it. I enjoyed the opportunity to be out there, learning the ins and outs of what to do, how to game plan. Havre is a bigger school, so there might be more responsibility, but it’s the right place and right time and I’m ready to keep learning.”