Before halftime in the 2001 Class 4A state championship boys high school basketball game, television broadcasters said what many might have thought: The undefeated Kodiak Bears and their coach, Amy Fogle, seemed to have finally hit a roadblock in East High School.
“Her team’s never seen the speed and quickness that they’re seeing tonight,” one announcer said. “And I don’t believe they’ve seen the size either,” another responded.
Kodiak drew its best players from a much smaller student body than East had, said Fogle, who used her pre-marriage name, Amy Rakers, back then. Kodiak also had fewer opportunities to schedule tough Outside opponents. But her Bears could compete, she said.
“I think that that’s one thing I like to draw out of kids is ‘Have a little more confidence in yourself. You can play a little bit more. You have a little bit more in you,’ ” said Fogle.
During a timeout in the fourth quarter of the championship game, she looked at her squad and smiled.
“This is championship basketball, guys,” Fogle recalled saying. “Can’t get any better than this.”
But Fogle might have been wrong in that timeout. The game did get better as the years went by, and its impact more fully understood by the coach and her players as their perspectives broadened with time.
This month, before the team reunited for the Hall of Fame ceremony, Fogle looked back on what she hopes players took away from that experience, and her starting five discussed how their trailblazing coach influenced them.
Curtis Mortenson, now a family doctor in Kodiak, often hears from new patients that he looks familiar.
“I say, ‘Do you follow basketball?’ I kind of know where this is going by now,” Mortenson said. “I bet it happens at least monthly where somebody mentions that game.”
The 2000-01 season captivated the city of about 6,000, he said. Fans packed the gym to watch the Bears play. Their success was built by a knowledgeable and demanding coach who installed an uptempo style of play.
“Notoriously, our practices were brutal. We were the best-conditioned team in the state. There’s no doubt that that was intentional on her part,” Mortenson said, noting that with the exception of a 7-foot center, the team didn’t have much size.
By the time Kodiak reached the state tournament, Mortenson found it odd that media reports seemed to focus on his coach’s gender. Fogle was the first woman to coach a large-school boys team in Alaska when she led Soldotna from 1993 to 1995, and at Kodiak she was the first to coach a boys team to a state championship.
“Now I look back, and I’m like ‘Of course, they’re writing about that,’ ” Mortenson said. “... That was really groundbreaking in some ways. The fact is, I just respected her as a coach.”
Mortenson, 36, said his confidence was sagging going into the championship game. His shots had not been falling. But Fogle didn’t lose faith, he said.
“You know, Curtis, we’re going to win or lose with you shooting the ball,” Mortenson recalled her saying.
He caught fire in the second half. He hit nearly every shot he took and finished as his team’s high scorer. It was the only time that happened all season, he said.
“Whether it’s in my professional life or personal life with kids now ... you realize how important it is to have somebody that you respect ... that is breathing confidence into your life, and is affirming the work that you’re putting in,” Mortenson said. “And that was powerful in that moment for me.”
Point guard Geoffrey Agmata said the Bears were treated like NBA champs when they returned to Kodiak after the tournament. Fans lined the tarmac and filled the airport terminal to greet them. Players made appearances and signed autographs.
Agmata had to adjust to the attention.
“I grew up very timid,” he said. “To this day, I kind of have a little bit of trouble speaking in front of everybody.”
Agmata developed skills with his brothers on a playground court as a kid. He was in middle school before he felt like he belonged on an organized basketball team. Even youth leagues seemed like an inner circle for families with money, he said. Agmata’s brothers played basketball, but few other Filipino kids got involved back then, he recalled recently.
“We did fundraisers and stuff to help people like us,” he said.
As a point guard on the varsity team, Agmata said, he often called plays by signaling with his fingers, because his voice didn’t carry. But he was confident in his abilities and he felt like part of an extended family that included his teammates and their families.
In the championship game, as the third quarter came to a close, Agmata launched a bomb from a big step behind the 3-point line.
“I don’t know what I was thinking, putting up that shot,” he said.
He nailed it, then hustled back to steal a long inbound pass, plays that fueled his team’s momentum. It remains his favorite memory — that and when he hugged Fogle after the final buzzer.
“I tried to be that favorite player, just doing everything she says and trying to be as coachable as possible for her,” he said.
Agmata, 35, lives in Anchorage and works as a service supervisor and operations manager for Ross Aviation. Back in 2001, after Kodiak’s big win, he began to see the power of his example.
“Going to those elementary schools, signing autographs, you have those groups of Filipino kids coming to you first,” Agamata said. “It just made you realize that you did something good for them and the ones to follow.”
Kodiak’s basketball team this season had a large representation from the Filipino community, he noted.
“I think we paved the way for those kids,” he said.
Tim LeDoux fouled out in the championship game. It cost him the chance to be on the floor in the final minute. That might have been tough to swallow for most players, but LeDoux felt fine about it, he recalled this month. He was confident in his team and knew the game’s outcome didn’t hinge on him alone.
“We kind of gave up that idea for the greater good,” he said. “We wanted to win.”
LeDoux remembered that when he was a sophomore, he was chided by Fogle for wearing black socks to a game when everyone else wore white. She questioned his desire to stand out before he rushed to the locker room to change.
Eventually Fogle steered LeDoux toward a leadership role, he said. He remembers pushing himself during strenuous conditioning drills and enjoying the challenge.
“We started asking for it towards the end, ” LeDoux said.
He also learned being a leader was about more than hard work.
“A couple times she approached me to look out for other people and make sure they felt good, make sure that they felt wanted on the team, make sure that they felt appreciated, and make sure they knew that we had confidence in them,” he said.
The team accomplishment imparted confidence that still serves him, he said. LeDoux, 36, lives in Los Angeles and creates visual effects for Hollywood films.
"We had high expectations for ourselves. But having high expectations is totally different than completing the goal ...,” LeDoux said.
“You actually get to see and feel and know what it feels like to be surrounded by people who are all working for the same thing — working really hard for the same thing — and they make it happen. And that’s something that I’m always trying to re-create.”
Phil Nisbett learned a few lessons the hard way from Fogle. He used to get mad at her.
He recalled one game when Kodiak traveled to Homer. It was a chance for him to play in a town he had lived in for years growing up.
“I figured, me being from Homer, I would play the whole game and all my friends would see me,” Nisbett said. “She takes me out, and I probably dropped the F-bomb. And she saw me say that and she sat me out for the rest of the game.”
But now Nisbett is a coach himself, and he gets it.
“I don’t blame her,” said Nisbett, 35.
As a coach of middle school and junior varsity basketball in Palmer, he tries to keep his own players in line. And he says his style is a lot like Fogle’s.
“I don’t let these kids take any possessions off,” he said.
Nisbett sank two crucial free throws with 21 seconds left in the championship game. It put Kodiak up by three points, a lead it held until the final horn.
Nisbett, who also works at the MTA Sports Center and is a personal trainer in Palmer, said he sometimes hears from other coaches who have watched video of that 2001 win, something he shared with his “best friends for life.”
“That brings me lots of joy to look back at that and say, ‘Wow, I’m a part of that …,' ” Nisbett said. “To have people still talk about that? It’s really an awesome feeling.”
A high school state championship wasn’t the end of basketball for Nick Billings, a 7-foot center and athletic shot blocker.
“I had a long basketball career. I played in college. I played overseas. I had some NBA tryouts and stuff,” Billings said. “But I still look at that and a lot of the stuff that (Fogle) taught me. Not even like moves or anything like that. It was more of just how to be a good player, how to be a good teammate, the sacrifice that it takes to win.”
At the time, Billings said, he just tried to stay on Fogle’s good side with his actions, both on and off the court.
“Oh heck yeah, she was scary,” Billings said. “If you didn’t do things right, she was in your face letting you know.”
“Being a small town, coach knew everything that was going on. Stuff would get passed around to parents before you got home from school. ...
“But you know what? I wouldn’t have changed it. I’ve had tons of coaches, but she was by far one of the best ones, and definitely helped me become a better player, a better person.”
When Billings returned to Kodiak after he finished his playing career, he joined forces with Fogle again to coach the girls varsity team. The team went undefeated and won a state title, just as Billings had done as a student.
“We had amazing talks about what I want to do with my life, how to get things out of players,” he said. “That year right there even added more significance to what she’s been able to do for me.”
Now 37, Billings lives in Wasilla and works at a treatment facility for troubled youth in Palmer. He recently finished a master’s degree and has an eye toward teaching in middle or high school.
Heading into his final game as a Kodiak player, Billings said, he was a “bucket of nerves.” He recalled heated exchanges between the Bears and the East High players as they headed to the locker room at halftime.
“It was kind of like David and Goliath. I’m sorry, but we looked at East as this massive powerhouse. They have the height. They have the talent. What are us little guys going to do?” Billings said.
“And she made us believe.”
If Amy Fogle broke new ground as the first woman to coach a boys basketball team to an Alaska state championship, she said, she didn’t give the notion much thought in the run-up to the game.
“We competed every single night, and we got better every single game. And that’s what’s most important,” Fogle said. “I didn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to prove anything because I was a woman.”
But others took notice when her coaching career got off the ground in Soldotna in 1993, and not all of the attention was positive. Soldotna athletic director Allan Howard recalled that some parents and athletes were upset about the hire.
“I had a couple players, and one for sure, that dropped out before the end of the season,” Howard said. “I know no other reason why they did that, except they were having an issue with having a female as their coach.”
Fogle said that during her first game as Soldotna’s varsity coach in 1993, an opposing coach told her to go back to her knitting.
“I’ve had things like that happen, from parents and coaches and fans in the stands,” she said.
But Fogle, once a fierce competitor at Southern Illinois University, stuck to her game plan and focused on her team.
“I felt a responsibility to teach them the game of basketball, and to teach them how to play hard. And to win and lose and be respectful about it,” she said.
Fogle preached consistency when the Bears strayed from their fast-moving style in the championship game.
“Guys, if you’re going to get beat, get beat playing your game,” she told them.
At the buzzer, fans mobbed the team to celebrate Kodiak’s first championship since 1959. Fogle stood on the top rung of a ladder, cut the net down and held it up for photos, a lattice in string knit from an undefeated season.
“You put in hard work, and you do it the right way, and you play with character and class, good things can happen,” Fogle said. “And I think that’s true still.”
On Thursday, Fogle reunited with her players for a pickup game at a borrowed Anchorage gym a few hours before the induction ceremony. Many hadn’t seen each other in years. She ordered the players, who have doubled in age since their Hall of Fame moment, to the baseline and called out a weave drill.
“I want to see if you can remember it,” she said with a laugh.