By Dan Kelly EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – We all can remember that teacher or coach who furthered our personal growth by offering encouragement and guidance, challenging us to exceed the expectations we set for ourselves and “leave it all on the court.’”
Lone Peak High School has seen a meteoric rise in enrollment since its first class of students graduated in 2009 and as the Big Horns’ winter sports season begins, EBS interviewed two pioneering coaches integral to the development and success of the basketball and volleyball programs at LPHS.
With the help of countless teachers, administrators and volunteers, Al Malinowski and Sarah Phelps have instilled a culture of excellence and hard work that has brought the Big Horns from relative obscurity to an established presence in Class C athletics. Both Phelps and Malinowski have hung up their LPHS whistles—the 2016-2017 school year marked their final year at the helms of their respective programs.
Sarah Phelps’ lasting contributions to Lone Peak Volleyball began at Ophir School in 2006, where she coached for five seasons before joining the staff of Lone Peak’s junior varsity team in 2010. The following year, she became head coach of the first Big Horns varsity squad, a position she held for six years.
“The opportunity to build this program was something that was really exciting to me,” she said. Alongside assistant coach Erika Frounfelker, Phelps and her players endured a challenging inaugural season with a team of just 12 girls, some entirely new to the sport of volleyball. “Those first few years we had a constant emphasis on fundamentals…it was a big learning curve, but we needed to build the foundation for the future,” Phelps said. “I knew they had potential.”
Build the foundation she did, and the Big Horns steadily improved from year to year. Phelps garnered excitement from incoming classes and drew on her experience working with the junior high teams. “It was pretty special to have those girls starting with me when they were 10 and continue to coach them through high school,” Phelps said.
“One of the things I think is really great about athletics is that it connects students with adults who are great role models,” LPHS Athletic Director Ladawn LeGrande said. “Sarah has amazing rapport and a bond of trust with the girls.”
By 2016, under her guidance and mentorship, the program had 22 players on the roster. They finished the season with an 18-7 record, advancing to the divisional tournament and narrowly missing a berth to the state tournament after a hard fought loss to rival Gardiner. “We surprised people,” Phelps said. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Who is Lone Peak?’ To go from 4-11 as freshman in 2013 to 18-7 as seniors was a huge jump.”
Al Malinowski, or “Al Mal,” has been coaching basketball in Big Sky for two decades, first stepping into his role at Ophir School in 1996 with help from teachers and community members such as Mark Gale and Jeremy Harder. “It was a niche in the community that I found where I could give something back,” Malinowski said.
Thirteen years later, when the doors first opened in 2009 at Lone Peak High School, he was the coach of the newly established junior varsity team. “We had seven players, and three of them had never played basketball before,” he said of the program’s initial year.
One year later the Big Horns would defeat West Yellowstone in the play-in game to the junior varsity district tournament. With a strong group of incoming freshman soon to join the program, Malinowski knew he had the pieces in place to make the jump to varsity the following season.
Emphasizing solid fundamentals, hard work and a culture of inclusiveness—all hallmarks of Big Horn athletics–the class of 2015 would improve from a 4-17 record their first season to 13-7 in the 2014-15 campaign.
That squad was marked by strong senior leadership—four players earned All-Conference honors that year. Malinowski credits LPHS players for setting the tone during those pioneering early seasons. “Now the kids coming in, they have something they can look at, learn from the positives and negatives and keep building on the overall program.”
LeGrande praised Malinowski’s impact, calling him “an institution in Big Sky basketball,” but Malinowski says it takes a village to build a program. Teachers and administrators such as Tony Beardsley, former athletic director of LPHS, were integral to the success of Big Horn basketball, he said.
“There was always a tremendous amount of respect that other teams had for our team—whether we won or not, we always went out and battled with what we had and did it with class and integrity,” Malinowski said. “I think that was an important thing that made me proud of our players, that the kids respected those values.”