BILLINGS -- Havre girls basketball coach Dustin Kraske has been a lifer in the Blue Pony community.
He graduated from Havre High School and Montana State University-Northern before spending time as an assistant boys basketball coach. Kraske is now in his 14th season as the varsity girls basketball coach at Havre and has led the Blue Ponies to the state tournament in all but one season.
Kraske sat down with MTN Sports before his team’s recent visit to Billings Central to discuss his life in basketball.
MTN Sports: You’re a graduate of Havre High, MSU-Northern, couldn’t really get out of Havre could you?
Dustin Kraske: "No. You know, Havre has really treated me very well, selfishly. I really enjoy the community. Being a Blue Pony kind of stuck in my heart, I guess, so that’s where I’ll stay."
MTN: Year 14 now? You’ve only missed the state tournament one year. How are you able to maintain constant success with these girls?
Kraske: "Great kids. That’s No. 1, I think. Very supportive parents, that mix. I’ve had some really nice assistant coaches that have helped me over the last 14 years. Getting our kids in the gym and we're able to get the skills to be good enough to be a good team at the end of the year and then play well at the end. It’s been pretty lucky."
MTN: You assisted with the boys program for a handful of years. How did that lend to your coaching style? Did you pick up anything during that time?
Kraske: "Everything, I think. I learned a lot from two guys, one of them is here tonight, Mark West. We coached together for three years. I was his freshman coach, along with John Barnhorst. Then Mark retired and John got the job and I was his JV coach for two years. I learned a lot from both those guys. Every component of our program comes from the two of them, to be quite honest with you. Of course we’ve made some tweaks over the years and things like that, but the foundation was set by those two gentlemen."
MTN: What have the last couple years been like just in the community of Havre? Being around the team and the girls there going on these championship runs.
Kraske: "Oh, it's been really lucky. It's been real good fortune. The community is very supportive. I really appreciate when our boys and girls play together. The gym at Havre High, it's rocking normally. Our pep band is wonderful, cheer squad is wonderful, community is great and they come out and support us. So it's been, I don't want to say unbelievable, but maybe that's a good word to describe it. The kids have played so well. It's been real humbling to be a part of that."
MTN: We’ve noticed that at least one or two of the Class AA schools are moving toward doubleheaders with the boys and girls, keep the gyms packed. Is that something you want Class A to move toward, as well?
Kraske: "Well, we’re doing that. (Havre athletic director Dennis Murphy) has done that pretty well for us the last couple years, and I think we’ll end up doing that more as we continue. I think the fanbase would prefer that more, to be honest with you. This weekend just didn’t work out that way. I don’t understand the logistics of that, but it is what it is. Next weekend we’re going to go to Glendive and Miles City and we’ll travel together with the boys, and that’ll be fun. So it’ll be a good time."
MTN: Kyndall Keller is going on to play at the next level. When is it apparent to you as a coach that you have a girl that has the talent and the skills to go play at the next level?
Kraske: "I thought for her, quite honestly, I always felt like she was going to be a college basketball player. I’ve had a few kids like that. As far as DI, I kind of thought that at the end of her sophomore honestly. I thought she had the skill set to do that, and she’s a tremendous worker. You knew she would get better. All of our kids have spent a bunch of time in the gym, and she’s of course had a lot of time in there, too. We’ve been fortunate. To have her go to Missoula is unbelievable, a dream come true for her, obviously. For our program it just speaks to the quality of kid that we have. We had a couple kids play at Northern with Peyton (Filius) and Brandy (Lambourne). That’s been wonderful. Lacey (Waid) went over to Dickinson State and wrapped up her career. Dani Wagner over at Carroll, she’s just lighting it up and playing well. We’ve had some nice kids that can play and it’s been a good mix."
MTN: How much of their success comes from being pushed every day in practice by teammates who are talented, as well?
Kraske: "I think that has a lot to do with it. Our practices have been very good for a while. I’d like to think we have a little hand in it, but quite frankly for any kid that’s a college-bound kid, their time in the gym by themselves kind of helped with that, too. We’re the beneficiary of that hard work."
MTN: Since you’ve been coaching the last 20 years or so, how has the game changed? We see professional basketball players shooting step-back 35-footers. How do you see how the game has evolved? Do you see kids spending more time shooting the ball from deep rather than working on fundamental skills?
Kraske: "I think so. We don’t do any of that very well. We tell our kids we’re just trying to make simple look good. Selfishly, I like it. I don’t know if our kids necessarily do. We try not to shoot real quick. We try to hopefully have the other team play defense, but the game has really changed a lot. I thought for a while there weren’t too many kids in the gym at all. I thought the quality of basketball, particularly in girls, went down. Selfishly, now I think it’s on the rise. I think kids are putting the time in. I think kids want to be good. I think you see a little bit of kids maneuvering around to be on good teams. That’s kind of new. It is what it is. I think girls basketball in the state right now is pretty healthy."
MTN: When you’re coaching against the teams that play that style that is up-tempo and shoot a lot of 3s, what’s your philosophy there? How do you go into that game and attack that game plan.
Kraske: "You’ve got to do a really good job of keeping them in front of you if you’re going to put some pressure on, which we like to do. Rebound the basketball. We kind of like to run, too, a little bit. I think you have to make kids get out of their rhythmic catch. That’s what we focus on a little bit. I think if a kid can catch and have their feet set ready to shoot and have an advantage over you, and if you can knock that off somehow or mess with that a little bit, it’s to your advantage defensively."
MTN: The Eastern A has been so good the last couple years, and this year it should be again. How exciting do you think that divisional tournament is going to be?
Kraske: "I think on the girls side it’s going to be rocking and rolling. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m really appreciative that the decision makers in Class A pushed us to the East, because it made our program better. Not immediately, but, you know, the East traditionally has wonderful girls basketball. So it makes you drive maybe a little harder, push a little harder to get your program to where it should be. That’s helped us. Playing against the Laurels when Amber (Griffith) was there and Pat (Hansen) last year, they’re solid. Playing against Hardin with Cindy (Farmer), solid. Playing against Billings Central, we haven’t played them in the regular season, except for these last two years, playing against Jett (Ailes) and her kids, it’s wonderful. Before her it was Jeff (Malby). It’s great basketball. Back in the day you had Richy (Powell) over there in Glendive. They were tougher than heck. You had Cary Veis, Kelly’s brother, over there. They dominated for 25 years. It’s good basketball in the East and we’re lucky to be a part of that."
MTN: Last year you were named one of the Montana Coaches Association girls basketball coaches of the year. How is that just reflective of all the work that your girls put in throughout the entire year?
Kraske: "That's all that it is. I think that you're rewarded as a coach because your kids are good. We only are lucky to be awarded or rewarded, I guess, because our kids put a lot of time in. They want to be a good team, they want to be good individuals and they want to gel together. I'm glad that they let us coach them."
MTN: You’re the principal up at the middle school. What are some of the day-to-day challenges that job faces?
Kraske: "It’s a lot of fun. Our kids up there are wonderful. Our staff is fantastic, and that makes coaching even possible for me. I think the greatest challenge for kids is to help get them in school, to show them that education matters, to talk to them about what life can be like beyond Havre High. We talk in those terms to them. What graduation is like. For us, we’re constantly giving those kids love and support. No. 1, come to school, be in school, be successful while you’re here. We’ve spent a lot of time the last couple years meeting with kids trying to encourage them so that they understand we’re in this together. We try to meet with every family. Last year we met with incoming sixth graders. We’re a sixth, seventh, eighth building. To meet with their families and talk to them about school and what we’re here for, we’re in it together, we’re going to snap our fingers and they’re going to high school. It happens quick, especially when you get older in education. It’s a wonderful job, but it only really works for me because I work with such great people, and that helps a ton."
MTN: It seems there are strong ties between coaching and educators. What exactly do you think that relationship is? Is that because if they teach they’re better-suited for coaching?
Kraske: "Maybe? I think that people get into coaching because they want to build a relationship with the kid. So then it’s natural that you could pursue teaching because you love kids, you want to be around kids. I think that they go hand in hand. It’s a dying breed, right? There’s a lot of coaches now that aren’t. That’s not a negative toward them, it’s just a way of the world. Coaches are hard to find. If you’re a teacher-coach, then I think that you hold so many keys to the kingdom for a kid that you can really help them with. That’s probably the biggest thing for a teacher that wants to be a coach or a coach that wants to be a teacher. You’re everything to that kid, and I think you need to keep that in mind as you teach and coach every day."
MTN: Is there anything beyond Havre and being an educator and coach out there?
Kraske: "For me? Yeah. I’m going to be a cattle guy here one of these days. We have a few cows at home and that’s a ton of fun for me, selfishly. So when we’re done with this we’re going to do that."
MTN: Is that part of what has kept you in Havre?
Kraske: "Yeah. Growing up there and that has an awful lot to do with it. It’s been a good place. I plan to be there for a while. I really enjoy it."