Twenty years ago, Bozeman was in the midst of one of the historic runs in Montana high school girls basketball.
The Hawks won five Class AA state championships in the 1990s, including four in five years from 1995-99.
It’s that 1999 team, though, that should be considered among Montana’s best ever.
“I think there’s been some amazing teams over the years, but that team does stand alone as far as having the collection of talent that moved on to the next level and was successful,” recalled Montana State-Northern women’s basketball coach Chris Mouat, who was coaching the Butte High girls in 1999.
Rick Jordan coached Bozeman to back-to-back championships in 1998 and 1999. The Hawks returned only two starters — Andrea Lalum and Kati Burrows — in 1999, but they filled the roster with skilled players.
Lalum and Burrows have their own impressive resumes, but they were just two of an astounding six future Division I players on that Bozeman team.
“I think we were just young, we were naive,” said Kati (Burrows) Mobley, now an assistant coach with the Montana State women’s basketball team. “We knew we were good. Now looking back, it’s pretty phenomenal to have the amount of talent on one team.”
There’s the big three: Burrows, Lalum and Mandy Close. But there were also Ali Smith, Jessica Smith and Annie Fischer.
Burrows was an all-state player for Bozeman and part of three of the Hawks’ championship-winning teams. She continued her career at Montana State, where she became one of the program’s all-time greats, scoring 1,528 career points.
Lalum transferred to Bozeman from Class C Joplin prior to her junior year of high school and helped the Hawks to back-to-back titles in 1998 and 1999. She continued her standout career at the University of Washington and finished with 1,462 points, 661 rebounds and 100 blocked shots for the Huskies.
Close starred in multiple sports at Bozeman High and ultimately matriculated to Oregon State. She became a key fixture for the Beavers by her senior season and scored 970 career points.
Ali Smith took her basketball career to Princeton, Jessica Smith signed to play at Wichita State, and Fischer spent time playing at Weber State.
“We made a conscious decision to really let, especially those seniors, really be leaders — not that we just rolled the ball out, because we knew better than that, but we tried not to over-coach that team, because we knew we had the talent,” said Rick Jordan, who coached the Hawks from 1998-2002. “It wasn’t just the talent, those kids had put in so much time to get as good as they were.”
As talented as those Hawks were, they still lost two games during that 1999 season, one at Billings West and one against Helena High, which, according to Jordan, showcased the wealth of talent across the state. In those days, running the table was beyond difficult.
There was plenty of skill on the court, but the sidelines featured some up-and-comers, as well. Mouat was at Butte; Steve Keller, who is now the men’s coach at the University of Providence, was coaching the Helena High girls; and Kevin Woodin, who is now the women’s coach at Montana State Billings, was coaching at Billings West then.
Woodin’s Golden Bears implemented a triangle-and-2 defense that rattled Bozeman into a 15-point loss that season, according to both coaches.
“Then our other loss was Senior Night against Helena High,” Jordan recalled. “We had an 11-point lead going into the fourth quarter. They came out, hit a 3 and got it to like seven, and our kids just kind of froze up a little bit and started kind of playing that not-to-lose and just got tight, and they came back to beat us.”
“Looking back, with the talent we had, we shouldn’t have lost. It kind of helped us losing, especially on Senior Night, that showed us that we had to show up and play hard,” Mobley added. “I think, honestly, it helped us going into the state tournament. It helps with the complacency.”
Bozeman won the rematch with West and still entered the 1999 state tournament as the Eastern AA’s No. 1 seed. The Hawks played Missoula Big Sky in the first round and, as Jordan recollects, had to rally late to force overtime and eke out a narrow win.
The sailing was smoother the rest of the tournament, as Bozeman pulled away from Helena High in the semifinal round and Billings Senior in the championship.
“To win championships together you’ve got to spend a lot of time together. Just spending that time together to achieve those types of goals is pretty special,” Jordan said. “It’s been pretty cool to, 20 years later, to know what’s going on in their lives and to hear that affirmation every once in a while that I did have something positive, some kind of positive influence in their lives.”
“Montana was some of the best times of my basketball career, just because it was so organic, natural and raw,” said Lalum, who was the brightest of Bozeman’s six stars.
Though she ultimately ended up at the University of Washington, Lalum was recruited by programs all over the country. Jordan led the charge, talking to coaches from coast to coast. She narrowed it down to the western United States and fell in love with Washington, where former Havre High star Loree Payne was already making waves, on her first visit.
“We went to the Elite 8 my freshman year,” Lalum remembered. “It was the perfect placement for me to be a presence right a way. Washington was really good to me.”
Lalum averaged 12.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game during the tournament on her way to earning NCAA West Regional All-Tournament Team recognition. She parlayed a solid freshman season into an impressive career at Washington and ultimately got a taste of professional basketball in the WNBA and overseas.
Lalum has lived in Los Angeles since 2008, keeping in touch with many people from her days in Bozeman.
“It’s a beautiful thing to show and see where sports can take you,” Lalum said. “For women, obviously, it’s a lot different. There is a lot of opportunity with the coaching. All of us are becoming moms now. Evolution of life is so beautiful. So thankful that I landed in Bozeman, and it did give me a springboard to a lot of opportunities in life. Amazing team, amazing coach, good experience. It was some of the best years of our careers, for sure.”