The first days of Kati Burrows at Maricopa High School were an eye-opener for the girls basketball team.
Junior Danae Ruiz, who had been a stand-out since middle school, called the first encounter with the new head coach “rough.”
“Her expectations were very high,” Ruiz said. “Everything had to be perfect. It was her way or the baseline. That was the phrase we started using.”
Her ability to convey a drive to win helped the Rams to a 29-5 record and their first-ever state championship.
It also earned her Division II Coach of the Year honors from the Arizona Basketball Coaches Association and the title of All-USA Arizona American Family Insurance High School Girls Basketball Big Schools Coach of the Year.
“It was a great honor to be voted on by my peers,” Burrows said. “It comes back to everyone being supportive. It’s not an individual award.”
Losing is not part of Burrows’ background.
“I don’t know that she lost 10 games her whole high school career,” said Rick Jordan, who coached Burrows at Bozeman High School in Montana and is now a vice principal in Nampa, Idaho. “We won state her junior and senior years, in 1998 and ’99.
“What was amazing about Kati is she played point guard as a junior and was all-conference. Then we moved her to power forward as a senior, and she was all-state.”
At the time, it had not crossed his mind that Burrows would coach one day, but he said it did not surprise him.
Jordan said she was “kind of the coach on the floor” as a point guard and continued that role the next year because of the inexperience of the new point guard.
“Kati was maybe the most competitive player I’ve ever coached,” Jordan said. “And she was a great kid off the floor, too.”
At Division I Montana State University, Burrows was part of back-to-back conference championship teams. She became the team’s fourth leading scorer in school history with more than 1,000 points and was seventh all-time in rebounds with 500.
After graduating in 2005, she spent the next three years playing professional basketball in Europe – one year in Holland and two in Germany.
“It was awesome,” she said. “Beyond basketball, it was experiencing the culture.”
She returned stateside and eventually headed to the Southwest with coaching in mind. Burrows said she had actually thought about coaching when she was in high school.
“I had high school and college coaches that are super supportive and not just about X’s and O’s,” she said.
She uses the present tense because past coaches remain in contact. It is an encouraging, enriching kind of relationship she wanted to emulate for the next generation of players. Being able to connect with kids on that same level, she said is “very satisfying.”
For three seasons, she was lead assistant coach at St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix as they won two state titles. She then spent a season as assistant at Mesa Dobson before the head coach job at Maricopa opened.
It was a solid program with good players, and Burrows saw they had potential to go where no Maricopa basketball team had gone before. Right off the bat, as the Rams went into practice, they felt the demands the coach put on their shoulders.
“She made us work harder,” sophomore Tyra Williams said. “She taught us to stay together – and defense.”
That obstinate defense defined the Ram style of play this season. Rarely pretty, it was extremely effective in creating turnovers and bewildering bigger teams.
“She taught us to never give up,” senior Tiara Edmond said.
It was a lesson in “how to be relentless,” Ruiz said.
The season was also a learning experience for Burrows.
“Being a head coach is completely different,” she said. “Everything comes back on you. But I’ve had a great support system and [athletic director] Mark Cisterna has been amazing.”
Cisterna said Burrows sent the message early that she would hold players accountable.
“She’s done a great job, she really has; and she’s really opened up a lot of eyes in the state,” Cisterna said.
He said Burrows was demanding but with perspective.
“During a state playoff game, she got on a girl because she wasn’t doing something right on defense, and the little girl gave her a thumbs-up on the court,” Cisterna recalled. “It made me laugh, but I knew a young coach might take that differently. But Kati smiled.
“She’s not afraid to laugh with the girls and yet they know they have to toe the line and they know the expectations,” Cisterna said.
Edmond said the team learned what they were capable of, and not just with a basketball. “She taught us life lessons, on and off the court,” she said.
The players said they knew expectations in classroom, practice and court behavior and the penalties for not towing the line. So when one player was benched for an entire tournament, it was not a surprise later when a starter met the same fate during the state semi-final game. Cisterna said Burrows was following the same code that the program already had in place, which was in keeping with how she had been brought to the game as well.
“She sticks to her guns,” Jordan said.
Cisterna said when he went out on the floor after the state title game and looked up at the cheering fans, he saw students who were proud of their peers, their school, their teachers and their coaches.
“When I looked up and saw all the students and community members, it was just great to see,” he said. “Hopefully, it will carry over.”
However rough the championship year may have started as the Rams got to know their coach, the results were more than just accolades and trophies.
“She became my mentor,” Ruiz said. “In my family I never had anybody play at that level before.”
***ADVERTISEMENT***Now as they encounter situations, she said, the girls ask, “What would coach do?”
Though it is now the off-season for the team, Burrows is working to put together workouts and camps and looking at next year.
“We have some big shoes to fill in the seniors that are leaving,” the coach said, “but we have great girls.”