While commuting 112 miles most days in going to and from his family’s cattle ranch/wheat farm north of Whitewater, Nate Hammond said his thoughts often turn to his team.
“I suppose I probably think more about them when we’re not playing very well,” laughed the Malta girls basketball coach.
That’s a typical response from a coach, even one whose season has been remarkably upbeat.
Hammond’s young M’ettes certainly haven’t been driving him too crazy in getting off to a 10-0 start and being ranked No. 3 behind three-time reigning state champion Fairfield and Deer Lodge in this week’s Class B poll.
“I’m maybe a little bit surprised at being 10-0,” said Hammond, who is in his first year as coach of the M’ettes and enjoying a warm welcome despite having just one senior among his 16 players.
“I really like the kids,” he said. “They all work so hard. They want to be a good team and they want to get better in practice. That really makes it fun as a coach.”
When you toss in a few statistical gems, including an average of 54.1 points and 17.6 steals per game, the reason behind Malta’s strong start isn’t too complicated.
The M’ettes, with their moments of sweet shooting and relentless man-to-man defense, are aiming to make a 10th consecutive appearance at the state tournament this season.
With a bunch of fresh faces, Malta is being led by 5-foot-8 freshman point guard Sophia Stiles, who is averaging a team-high 13.2 points and 4.8 steals per game.
She is tied with her sister, Mercedes, a 5-8 all-conference senior guard, with a team-leading 3.7 assists per outing and is also high on the team’s rebounding chart with 4.4 boards per game.
Darby Schye, a 6-foot junior center, is contributing 10.5 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest, while forward Hailey Nicholson, a 5-11 sophomore, is averaging 9.3 points and shooting 56 percent from the field.
Malta is outscoring its opponents by 30 points per game and has launched 502 shots compared to just 298 for its opponents.
“It’s been going pretty well for us,” Hammond said. “We’ve had some ups and downs, but there has also been some nights where we have played so well, I couldn’t believe how well we were playing.”
Malta’s hustle and desire was definitely evident last Saturday during a 49-14 victory at home over then-No. 8-ranked Wolf Point. The M’ettes held the rival Wolves (7-3) scoreless in the first and third quarters.
“That was probably one of our better games,” Hammond said. “It was one of those deals where the kids knew we had to come out and play well. They respond well to challenges.”
Next up for the M’ettes is a home game against Poplar (1-8) on Friday and a trip to Plentywood (4-6) on Saturday.
While the productivity has been there on offense, the aggressive defense, including some pressing and trapping tactics, has also been another consistent element — and provided a transition bucket or two.
“I think the athleticism of the girls is pretty special,” Hammond said. “They use that athleticism on the defensive side.”
Malta, which owns two wins over Class A Havre, is allowing just 24 points per game, and limiting foes to 26 percent shooting.
“These kids seem to do well with matching up,” Hammond said. “That’s probably from all the pick-up games they’ve played during the offseason. They’re used to playing that way on the playground.”
Hammond, 37, lives in Malta with his wife, Kari, and their two young children.
He works with his father, Mike, on the family spread, located near the Canadian border. He makes the round-trip commute most days, returning home in time for practices and games.
Hammond was a teacher and girls basketball coach for seven years at Bigfork, but had been away from the game for about five years before taking over for Terry Lindgren at Malta this season.
He is a 1995 graduate of Whitewater High School, where he was a three-sport athlete. Whitewater and Malta were a co-op in football at the time, so Hammond played as a wide receiver and cornerback for the Mustangs.
It was Malta principal Scott King, his former football coach, who first called him about the basketball coaching vacancy. However, after building a new house, and with two young kids and working for his father, Hammond wasn’t sure he had time to take on another job.
With the support of his family, though, he decided to pursue the opening.
“Now that I know the kids and I am familiar with the job, I’m really excited about doing it,” Hammond said.
Dating back to his football-playing days with the Mustangs, he said he was already aware of the high school’s run of success in athletics.
“Here in Malta, your goal is always to win the state title,” Hammond said of girls basketball. “When we go into the gym for practice and games, we’re reminded of that with eight great big championship banners hanging up there. The kids (playing this season) are used to seeing the kids before them win state titles.
“They definitely want to do that.”
While plenty of challenges await during the season’s second half, Hammond and the M’ettes are concentrating on 2B conference play at the moment and taking things one step at a time.
“We’re still trying to figure out some ways to get better,” he said.
Hammond’s commute, no doubt, will help provide him with some of the answers down the road.
Around Class B
• Three District 4B boys teams — Columbus, Huntley Project and Joliet — are 4-1 in conference play. Of those, 10th-ranked Joliet has the biggest weekend. The J-Hawks play at No. 8 Huntley Project on Friday after beating sixth-ranked Lodge Grass on Thursday.
• Friday night features two intriguing District 5B boys games. No. 5 Jefferson (9-1 overall, 4-1 conference) hosts Whitehall (7-3, 3-2), and ninth-ranked Townsend (7-3, 4-1) travels to Big Timber (7-3, 3-2). Jefferson has a seven-game winning streak since losing to Whitehall back on Dec. 20.
• The top spot in the 5B is on the line for the girls on Saturday, too, as Manhattan takes on Jefferson. The Tigers (8-2, 5-0) are ranked fifth in the latest Associated Press poll and beat Jefferson by four points in the teams’ first meeting this season.