By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (June 8, 2017) — A Texas high school boys basketball coach climbing the UIL conference ladder is not uncommon.
But going from the smallest conference at 1A Lingleville to the largest at 6A Odessa in just five years is a rarity, and going from the graduation stage at Tarleton State University to head coach of the state’s 16th largest high school in just eight years without ever being an assistant is a rise many would label as meteoric.
Jance Morris, 30, was formally announced as the new head coach at Odessa High Monday by Ector County ISD, 12 days after he accepted an over-the-phone offer from ECISD athletic director Todd Vesely, five years after a remarkable three-season program rebuild at 1A Lingleville and eight years since the Roby, Texas native earned his bachelor’s degree at Tarleton.
Morris hoped to one day coach in the largest classification in the state, but never imagined that day coming so soon. When he left Tarleton less than a decade ago, he just hoped to get a job. And Lingleville proved the perfect starting point, catapulting Morris onto a career trajectory the likes of which are rarely seen.
Dennis Hughes, who has since retired as superintendent at Lingleville ISD, remembers interviewing Morris in the summer of 2009.
“I don’t know that there was anything specific about him, but I remember he was just a very impressive young man overall and he knew what life was like at a small school like Lingleville,” said Hughes, who has temporarily returned to work as interim superintendent at nearby Gordon ISD. “I had a good feeling about him and we needed a basketball coach.
“I guess the best thing he had going for him was that he came highly recommended by Lonn Reisman,” added Hughes, referencing the state’s winningest active college basketball coach – at any level – entering his 30th season at Tarleton. Hughes recommended Morris for hire, the board of trustees approved, and eight years later he’s coaching at a school so big, no school board vote is necessary. While they are in the same state, there is a world of difference between coaching at Lingleville, with about 70 kids in grades 9-12, and leading a program at Odessa High, where in 2016 there were 3,965 students, according to the rank order used by the UIL for its most recent realignment.
Yet Morris believes some of the keys to success are the same at Lingleville as they are at Odessa, as well as Dalhart, Tulia and Perryton, his stops in between.
“I’m definitely in for some challenges. I’ve been in schools with 70 kids up to 700 kids and now I’m going to a school with more than 3,500,” Morris said. “But the bottom line is kids are kids. We have to get them to buy in and play hard like we have at every other stop along the journey. We will be facing some the best talent west Texas has to offer, but I can’t wait for the challenge and opportunity.”
Just like eight years ago, when he couldn’t wait to prove Lingleville could beat the likes of neighborly district rivals Lipan and Huckabay. Even if his first day on the job there was the most nervous he’s ever been.
“I was very nervous my first day at Lingleville. I was 22 and didn’t know anything about anything,” said Morris. I still get a little nervous every time the ball is tipped from game 1 to game 30, no matter where I’m at. It was that way at Lingleville, and it was that way the last two years at Perryton.”
As he begins his fifth head coaching job in seven years, Morris becomes the third head coach in three seasons at Odessa High. Fresh starts are the norm for all involved, though Morris says he never planned it that way. Even back in 2012, while guiding Lingleville to its first sweet 16 berth in 27 years, he says he was never even tempted to look ahead to bigger towns and brighter lights until after the season.
“I never thought about that during the season. I knew I wanted to get to a bigger place, but never really knew if I’d get the opportunity,” he said. “Luckily, Dalhart hired me and we had some success. Then (after a year at Tulia) we inherited a great group of kids at Perryton and had a little more success. I wasn’t sure if I could get to the bigger schools, but my former (athletic director), David Flowers (now retired from education and running a sports complex in Abilene), really helped me out.”
And as he has done throughout his brief career, Morris helped himself out, too, guiding his second Perryton team to the Region I-4A quarterfinals. Two months later, Odessa was in play and Morris was ready to make his dream come true.
There will be exponentially more of everything in Odessa than what Morris had or faced in his first job in rural western Erath County, but the same principles for coaching success, he says, still apply.
“We still have to build relationships first and foremost. We are only in season for three to four months of the year, but we are around the kids year-round now, so there’s much more than just what happens on the court,” he said. “When we are out there, we still have to play hard-nosed defense. That’s what we will be about. My philosophy has changed over the last eight years, but relationships and defense, those are still most important.”
They were most important at Lingleville, a program fledgling upon his arrival, but with a strong enough foundation when he left for Kade Eckert to take over and reach two regional tournaments in three seasons. And when Eckert went home to coach girls at 2A Harper northwest of San Antonio, he handed off the baton to Doug Galyean who continued a relay of successful coaches. Galyean’s first Cardinal team soared past its early-round playoff opponents before beating Graford for a fourth Sweet 16 berth in five years, only to see Graford avenge that loss by holding off a late Lingleville charge when they fought for a regional spot this past season. Galyean has since resigned and moved on as boys head coach at nearby 2A Santo.
“We haven’t lost many games since the last year Jance was here,” said Curt Haley, who came to Lingleville as principal in 2009 and was promoted to superintendent when Hughes retired. “Now, we’ve had some real good kids come through here these last several years, and that definitely helps, but we’ve been blessed with some great coaches, too, and Jance is the one you would have to say got it all turned around and sent us in a positive direction.”
The Lingleville faithful, and maybe a few who remember him from Tarleton, will be pleased to know Morris has settled nicely into family life with his wife, Marisa, and their son Jackson, 2. They’re all in for a big transition leaving Perryton, and its estimated population of 9,000, for Odessa, home to about 115,000.
But it’s in transition where Morrris has thrived on his meteoric rise to what he calls a destination job.
He summed it up best in a reply to a text message asking “Did you just get the Odessa job, as in 6A Odessa High?” His answer was short, simple and perfect: “We made it.”
Indeed. Faster than anyone could ever have imagined.