BIGFORK – Around the middle of May last year, Kurt Paulson heard that the head coaching job for Bigfork High School’s boys basketball program had opened up. By June 1, he had been selected for the job and was preparing his new players for a summer tournament in Missoula.
It took only two weeks for the 29-year-old coach to completely uproot his life in Missoula and take on a new career at the north end of Flathead Lake. There was never any hesitation. Seven months later, he grins when recalling how quickly it all happened.
“It kind of fell on my lap,” Paulson said last week. “My friend told me that the Bigfork coach was leaving, I threw my name in the hat and here I am.”
And he’s happy to be here, back in the Flathead Valley of his youth. Paulson graduated from Whitefish High School in 2001 before heading off to play basketball at Carroll College. His father is Kent Paulson, a former Whitefish High School principal and current athletic commissioner for the NAIA Frontier Conference.
Paulson takes over a basketball program that has found steady success at the Class B level while undergoing frequent coaching transitions. Paulson is the third head coach since 2008. Yet watching Paulson work with his players gives the impression of honed stability, showing few signs of a new coach struggling to figure out his new group of boys.
Bigfork’s 8-2 start, including 5-0 in the conference, speaks to the seamlessness of Paulson’s transition. The two losses came to top teams from Class A, a level higher than Class B. The Vikings lost to Columbia Falls by six and Stevensville by eight.
“How good we’re playing is a testament to how good of a coach he is,” senior guard and captain Ian Lorang said.
Despite being only 29 years old, Paulson is a veteran coach, boasting years of experience at both Carroll College as an assistant under Gary Turcott and the University of Montana as a graduate assistant under Wayne Tinkle. Paulson received his master’s degree in education and teaching endorsements at UM.
Bigfork players say Paulson brings a steady presence to the sidelines. They are fully buying into his system and outlook.
“His philosophy is that mistakes happen and you brush them off,” Connor Coleman, a senior forward and captain, said. “You make up for it on another play and make it even better.”
Coleman said the team immediately had confidence in Paulson over the summer when, in his first week coaching the team, he led the Vikings to a second-place finish at a UM tournament in Missoula, which featured roughly 25 high schools from around the Northwest. Bigfork lost to a team from the Portland area in the championship game.
“I know that boosted my confidence,” Coleman said. “It made me a lot more excited for basketball than I usually am.”
Bigfork Activities Director Matt Porrovecchio said school staff is similarly excited to have Paulson aboard. In addition to coaching, Paulson is Porrovecchio’s assistant activities director and the head activities director at the middle school, while teaching health and weightlifting courses at both schools.
“To call him my assistant is a knock – we work side by side,” Porrovecchio said. “That speaks to how much I value his input and background and experience.”
“I can’t say enough about him,” he added. “We’re exceptionally lucky to have him. I really think the kids are feeling the same too. They’re excited to have him as a part of their lives and a part of the program.”
Bigfork is coming off an impressive season under previous head coach Paul La Mott. The Vikings made it to the Class B state semifinals where they lost to Wolf Point 81-78 in overtime. Wolf Point went on to win the state title over Columbus 50-44.
With six seniors and a solid group of underclassmen, Paulson knows his team is capable of making another deep postseason run.
“I really enjoy the kids here,” he said. “They’re just a hard-working bunch and they’re a lot of fun to be around.”
Lorang says one last postseason run – and hopefully a state title – would be the crowning achievement for a class of seniors that is as tight-knit as they come.
“We’ve gone through a lot together as a team,” Lorang said. “It would mean a lot to go out there with this group of guys and make it happen.”