Cortez guides KMS to first state football championship

Being a high school quarterback in football, a point guard in basketball and a catcher in baseball allowed James Cortez to be in control of the action.

Natural leader
KMS head coach James Cortez communicates with an assistant coach in the booth during the Class A semifinals against Springfield Nov. 17 at the Metrodome. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton

Being a high school quarterback in football, a point guard in basketball and a catcher in baseball allowed James Cortez to be in control of the action.

Twelve years later, Cortez is even more in control of the action. He is the head coach of the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg football team that will be playing for the Class A title on Friday.

"I've always been a big sports junkie and I've always liked being in the middle of the action," said Cortez, a 1996 KMS graduate. "That's probably why I became a coach."

When Cortez graduated from Luther College, where he played baseball, he returned to this area, got a job in Willmar, and was a volunteer assistant coach at KMS under Chuck Kavan-agh. He spent four years as an assistant before Kavanagh stepped down and groomed Cortez to be his replacement.

"He runs pretty much the same offense we ran when I was coach," said Kavanagh. "He's young and still learning, but he's smart and gets the most out of his players."


KMS will face Royalton (12-1) in the final at 1 p.m. Aside from playing for the state crown, KMS (11-2) will also be motivated by revenge as one of the two losses the Fighting Saints endured this season was to Royalton on Oct. 7, 22-7.

"We're a different team than when we played them before," insists Cortez, who has a 42-17 record in five seasons as coach. "We've changed some things around and it's worked out well."

Since that game, KMS has a new center, left tackle and left guard. Cortez feels he has the right mix now.

"The line has really been a big key for us," said Cortez "We don't have any superstars and we aren't huge, but they play really well together."

KMS is averaging 399 yards per game this season, including 293 per game on the ground.

Cortez is big "film guy", watching hours of tape, as does his coaching staff, breaking down opponents' tendencies and looking at his own team's game to analyze certain situations and to try to improve on plays that maybe failed.

"We're pretty big on watching film here," said Cortez. "With DVD's now, I can burn copies for the kids to watch. My coaching staff watches film a lot. We try to pick up some of the other team's tendencies and maybe find a weakness we can pick on."

Kavanagh is a volunteer coach on Cortez's staff, just as Cortez was when Kavanagh was head coach.


"He was a great coach and I learned a lot from him," said Cortez. "I'm still running the same plays that he did 30 years ago. I might just add a wrinkle here or there. I think the difference between him and I is that we throw a little more and we'll throw on first or second down, rather than wait until third or fourth down."

Cortez said he isn't nervous at all being in his first state championship.

"Nah, not really," said Cortez, an elementary technology and Title I instructor in Murdock. "The extra week off helps you prepare your team more. I'm confident we're going to do well so I'm not nervous."

Cortez and his wife, Kris, have two children, Jared, 3, and Kelsey, 4 months. Cortez is also the head baseball coach at KMS. And he also was the head girls basketball coach for five years. At one point, he was head coach in all three sports in the same school year.

"I had a 2-21 team in girls basketball one year so I've been on both sides of the winning and losing end of it," said Cortez. "I like (winning) a lot better."

The Fighting Saints have won seven straight games by an average margin of 25 points since the loss to Royalton.

"The biggest difference between James and I coaching was he has a lot better quarterback (Kevin Steinhaus) than I had," Kavanagh joked, referring to when he had Cortez under center.

What To Read Next
Get Local