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ALBUQUERQUE — Although Devon Manning was denied a storybook ending upon returning to his alma mater Kirtland Central, he was so close to it.

The KC boys basketball graduate walked out of The Pit with three state championships from 2001 through 2003.

Sixteen years later, he made his return to the grand finale in Albuquerque as the KC girls’ coach.

Los Lunas took that immediate chance to be a state-champion coach away from Manning, winning 49-43 in Friday’s 4A finals. Yet, he still embraces getting back to that final stage.

“It was a great experience. The girls took me on a ride. I was just trying to guide them when I needed to, but it had a special feeling being back at Kirtland and being a part of this,” Manning said. “I experienced (winning state) as a player, and I wanted my players to experience that. I feel I kind of let them down. You don’t work your butt off all year to get to this game to lose.”

The hurt

Manning retreated to a corner right between the locker room and the press conference room’s back entrance. He dropped down to the floor and lowered his head, visibly devastated.

He wanted the state title badly, saying he wanted the players to experience the same joy he had when he hoisted the blue trophy.

And the players wanted it just as bad for Manning.

“It went through all of our minds. We talked about it,” said point guard Melanie Yazzie, who’s among several key returners next season. “No words can explain how bad we want it. He’s been through the program. He knows what it takes to earn the championship. So, he put us through what he thinks we can do to win.”

Reflecting on big changes

Initially reluctant about jumping over to girls basketball after six years coaching the Bloomfield and Piedra Vista boys teams, Manning said he didn’t apply for the coveted Kirtland girls basketball coach opening until the last second.

Today, he has no regrets about accepting the job.

“I talked to a lot of people. And to be honest, it was probably a lot easier because these set of girls listened to me so much,” Manning said. “Overall, it was the right choice. Being (my) alma mater, it’s just hard to turn down.”

And after running a run-and-gun type of offense in previous years, the Lady Broncos quickly grasped and embraced Manning’s high-percentage shooting system.

Even if they took a good 45 seconds off the clock, they understood the significance of it. They understood the value of taking smart shots.

“We’d just adapt to everything he throws at us,” Yazzie said.

Manning’s offense got Kirtland (27-4) to its first state finals appearance since 2012. The players and community alike quickly embraced it.

Setting the bar

Entering Year 2 and beyond, Manning hopes Friday is just the beginning for Kirtland under his watch.

Manning already has that burning will to finally win it all next season, with some of his key group still intact.

“We want to be here each year, be a prominent program in the state tournament,” Manning said. “Next season, we’re going to be prepared to take the next step. These girls did so much for me. I’m in debt to all these girls.”

Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.

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