When Lori Mabrey violently stomps her heels during a basketball game, this is not the insolent act of a woman throwing a tantrum.
These are the merely the stylings of a coach who excels at getting people’s attention.
And she’s been pretty adept at that her entire life.
“I don’t like people telling me I can’t get something done,” she said.
At age 45, Mabrey, who coaches the girls at Cibola High School, is one of the stars in her profession. Twice already, she’s led the Cougars into the state finals, and this Cibola team, seeded No. 2 in Class 5A behind Clovis, is arguably the best she’s had in her nine seasons.
If it sometimes seems as though Mabrey is a pacing, frantic force of nature along the Cibola bench, that is only natural. She is, after all, a former point guard. She’s always playing the angles.
“She’s a competitive person,” said longtime assistant coach Sharon Max.
This particular thread in Mabrey’s life extends back to her playing days at Kirtland Central in the mid-1980s, when the Broncos – after Don Flanagan’s Eldorado – were New Mexico’s premier program.
The focus narrows further to a Kirtland assistant coach named Bye Beckstead, who helped to sew a little anarchy into Mabrey’s life and into the Broncos’ revered program.
“I was a little punk freshman trying to make the varsity,” said Mabrey. “I asked him what I needed to do to make varsity, and he was very explicit. He said I needed to spend six hours a day in the gym.”
If that was meant to dissuade Mabrey from trying, it didn’t. Mabrey, then known as Lori Stephenson, was at a proverbial fork in the road.
She’d reach Kirtland’s varsity eventually. She knew that.
But, she was in a hurry.
“I was stubborn,” she said.
So, six hours a day in the gym it was.
Kirtland, which rarely went young in those days, was compelled to use her as a sophomore, and she was part of three state championship teams with the Broncos – their fifth, sixth and seventh consecutive titles in 1984-86.
“Those other kids (my age) weren’t willing to put in that time,” Mabrey said. “So I was able to move ahead of them.”
This anecdote seems more relevant than ever when discussing the evolution of Mabrey’s coaching career.
She spent five years coaching Kirtland’s freshmen girls. She came to realize that she’d probably never be the Broncos’ varsity coach. She had reached another fork. And in keeping with her past, she wasn’t keen on waiting.
“I wanted to get out from under the Kirtland wing and see what I could do on my own,” Mabrey said. “It was my feeling that it would never happen at Kirtland.”
At roughly the same time, a new school, Rio Rancho High, was opening.
“No way did I expect her to leave Kirtland,” said the Rams coach at the time, Bob McIntyre, who knew Mabrey from her playing days and from her summer work at various camps. “But I figured at least I’m gonna give her a courtesy call. And she jumped.”
Mabrey was eight seasons next to McIntyre at Rio Rancho – a period of time in which she began to appreciate that multiple philosophies could work at this level. Case in point: the zone, which was so prevalent in Kirtland, was not the only way to conduct defensive business.
McIntyre was a man-to-man guy; Mabrey realized the benefit of flexibility.
“She’s an intelligent coach,” said McIntyre. “And part of her success is her ability to relate to the players and spend the time getting to know them and finding out what makes them individually want to play harder.”
Pojoaque Valley had offered Mabrey their girls coaching job almost exactly when Cibola offered.
Nine years later, the Cibola program is flush with talent in every grade, even down into the middle-school level.
“I believe our team will be competitive, year in and year out,” she said. “Will we ever win the whole thing? I’m not sure. But we’ve definitely built the program so we’ll at least contend every single year.”
Max said Mabrey is tough – a reflection of the demands of playing for Kirtland Central – but extremely fair.
“She still coaches the same,” said Max, who was a player on Mabrey’s first freshman team at Kirtland Central and who watched Mabrey play point guard for the Broncos before she herself reached the high school. “That fire and passion is what helped me develop as a player. She doesn’t let you take the easy way out as a coach.”
Said Buster Mabrey, Lori’s husband of nearly two years: “She’s a tough, independent, outstanding woman. But on the basketball court is where she’s vocal. Off the court, she’s more (reserved).”
McIntyre described Lori Mabrey as a tough, hard-nosed guard during her playing days, and said it’s easy to see that the Cougars melt into her alpha personality. They are in many ways an extension of what Mabrey once was when she was in uniform.
“You grow up in that tradition,” said Max, “and when you get to that point, you’re expected to win.”
She stomps her heels during games to get her team’s attention, and she possesses a remarkably powerful, if sweetly squeaky, voice.
“I’m an old point guard,” she said with a laugh. “My job was to make sure we got into the offense at Kirtland. I’ve always been vocal. And it’s important they’re hearing me.
“I want them to see me as a strong woman, and I want them to see themselves as strong women. I’m a demanding coach, but my girls know that I really care about them.”