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Ronan, C-Falls, Glacier and ‘a good time’

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR
Daily Inter Lake | June 9, 2022 12:00 AM

Kris Salonen reiterated this week that she loved basketball more than track as a high school athlete at Great Falls High.

“But I was better at track, so I did that,” she said.

It probably follows then that while Salonen’s first high school coaching job was in track and field — the Montana Grizzlies standout was first the boys coach at Ronan High School, and then guided the girls — she later spent 12-plus seasons guiding girls basketball teams.

Now, 32 years after she took that first job in Ronan, she’s done teaching, too.

“It’s just a good time,” Salonen said of retirement. “I’m not tired; I’m not worn out. It’s just a good time for me and Brad.”

Brad Salonen and the former Kris Schmitt were both Great Falls High standout athletes, a power couple years in the making. They dated in high school but she was still Schmitt when she landed that Ronan job, which lasted nine years.

She wouldn’t trade those years.

“Leaving Ronan, and leaving Columbia Falls — small towns and smaller schools are amazing,” Salonen said. “You’re not just close to the people you coach, you’re close to everybody. When I was pregnant with Taylor in Ronan, the lunch ladies fed me every day.”

Along the way, she added, “I coached some good hurdles and a really good high jumper.”

Jamie Horner was a 5-foot-11 sophomore when Salonen took the PE class outside on a day when they all tried track or field events.

“He jumped 6-foot-2 in basketball shoes,” she remembered. “Marc Sulser could see from his classroom and he came running out.

“So we found him a pair of track shoes and he got 10 practices in, and he competed.”

You could call it that: Horner’s first meet was divisionals, and he cleared 6-8. A week later he made 6-4 to place second at state.

Nine years in Ronan gave way to eight in Columbia Falls, where she spent the last six as the Wildkats girls basketball coach. Originally she was Doug Cordier’s assistant, and in the meantime she and Brad were trying to increase the number of Salonens.

The key, perhaps, was in the job description.

“I told Brad, ‘I’m going to take this head coaching job, and you know what’s going to happen,’” she said.

Will, a recent Glacier High graduate, made his debut not much later, fortified by fruit slices generously stocked in his mom’s desk by the CFHS staff.

Mom came to Glacier when its doors opened in 2007. She was sophomore girls coach until midway through the 2009-10 season, when Doug Hashley stepped down.

She’s another Glacier original only now leaving the school.

“As hard as it was to leave Columbia Falls, because that was an amazing place for me, I wouldn’t trade this in a million years,” Salonen said. “All these people just stuck around and they just worked so hard. It’s been fun to be around so many that believe so much in building a culture and a new school.”

If you are inclined, you could figure out her coaching record: 67-65 at Columbia Falls, 93-58 in six-plus seasons with the Pack. Three of her Wildkat teams made the State A tournament; her 2013-14 Glacier squad went 20-5 and took third at the State AA.

Not bad, considering she was competing with the likes of Dean McFadden, Bill Pilgeram and Karen Deden. That’s some longevity for someone that says plainly: “I hate conflict.”

“It’s what makes you strong and tough,” Salonen said of those coaching trials. “You’re in it for the kids, but you’re also in it to win. You don’t keep your job by losing.”

If you like full circles, Salonen recently attended a youth basketball tournament. Who should show up with a young player but Horner – the Ronan flier with the 1995 State A high jump title and seconds in 1994 and ‘96.

Salonen stepped down as Glacier’s coach when Taylor was done playing, and managed a couple years in the junior high ranks when Will was playing through. Taylor was a junior on that Wolfpack team that took third. Such a dynamic might be awkward; but most of the girls had been her daughter’s friends since grade school.

Feels kind of small-town.

“I kind of had the same thing with Will,” Salonen said. “I didn’t coach him a lot, but having his buddies over, and then teaching them during the day — what a treat. Like I told the parents the other day: ‘I was the lucky one.’

“I got to see them every day. That was just cool.”

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 758-4463 or fneighbor@dailyinterlake.com.

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