By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
It couldn't get here soon enough for Montana State University-Northern women's head basketball coach Mike Erickson. The first game of the 2003-04 season is finally upon him as his Skylights host Grant MacEwen College for a pair of games tonight and Saturday.
With an infusion of size and talent from this year's recruiting class, Erickson went from having one of the smallest team in terms of size and depth to one of the biggest. And he finally gets to see them in their first meaningful game of the season.
While he was anxious to see his team in game situations, Erickson isn't a big believer in playing a lot of games early. Instead, he opted for a pair of scrimmages last weekend against Glendive Community College and Williston State College.
"I don't think the season should start any sooner than this," he said. "I'd rather get some good scrimmages against good teams than jumping into the non-conference schedule before you are ready."
Erickson saw plenty of good things in last weekend's scrimmages and plenty that his team still needs to work on.
"We had a pretty good weekend," Erickson said. "We got better in the second game, which is important. It also showed us where our weaknesses are at. Our intensity level is so up and down. We tend to lose some intensity once our subs come in. We need to stay intense for a longer period of time."
There shouldn't be a shortage of intensity this weekend since the games count on the Skylights official record and Erickson believes his team will respond accordingly.
"Our record starts this weekend," Erickson said. "I would hope the ladies go in a little more prepared, a little more intense and a little more aggressive for these games."
Last year, the non-conference schedule was very unkind to the Skylights as they struggled to find the right chemistry, losing their first 10 games of the season.
With five returners off of last year's squad and plenty of newcomers to mix in, Erickson will once again be looking to find who plays best with whom, but hopes this year's team won't face the same struggles.
"I would hope it won't be like last year," Erickson said. "We still have a lot of new, inexperienced players expected to contribute this season. If we do have troubles, it will be because of our inexperience. It takes some time to adapt to the mental side of college basketball."
But what his Skylights lack in experience, they make up for in size and talent.
After getting pounded on the boards last season, Erickson went out and brought in some post players to regain control of the paint. Of the nine newcomers only one player - Laura Keaster of Belt - is smaller than 5-9, while two players - Megan Valgardson and Ashley Trulock - come in at 6-3 and 6-4, respectively.
But the newcomers aren't just big, they can play too. Valgardson and former Chester standout and University of Montana transfer Michelle VanDyke are slated to start in the post. Erickson has bumped last year's post players, Khadiga Mohamed and Brettney Vermandel, to the wing with returning point guard Kristie Pullin running the team.
Erickson will start that lineup tonight and early on in the season until last year's leading scorer, Anna Bateman, recovers from foot surgery.
"Khadiga and Brettney are more comfortable being able to face the basket," Erickson said. "It makes us a better rebounding team and that's what our identity is going to be this season. We are going to rebound the ball on both the offensive and defensive ends."
The Skylights will keep 11 of their 14 players on the active roster with Trulock, Heggem and Heather Riener of Superior redshirting. While all three could contribute this season, Erickson isn't just thinking about having a good season, he's trying to return the program to prominence.
"It's not a bad thing to redshirt," Erickson said. "There's a lot of learning in that first year and as coach you can't be tunnel visioned. You have to look to the future."
The remaining players on the roster will bring something Northern didn't have at the end of the season last year - depth.
"We have so much depth and talent," Erickson said. "There just isn't a drop off in any of them. And every one of the girls on our team has a winning mentality. Every one of them played in a state tournament in high school and they understand what it takes to win."
Erickson will use every one of the players on his bench, albeit not equally all the time.
"We're trying to find the right combinations on the floor," Erickson said. "They have to adopt the attitude of doing whatever we need to win. It means they have to start their accepting roles and the amount of playing time they get."
And it will be tough for Erickson to dole out playing time evenly early in the season. Each of his five reserves can contribute in her own way.
True freshman Jessi Reome has made an immediate impact offensively. The 5-11 guard will be looked to for scoring off the bench.
"Jessi is a pure shooter," Erickson said. "She's not the quickest player on the floor, but she's smart and knows what to do to get her shots off."
Freshman Jenna Heggem from Winifred also shoots well from outside and brings some versatility. Sophomore Kristal Lohse returns from last year's squad, bringing intensity and rebounding while transfer and former Chester product Chasi Buffington and Big Sandy standout Sheena Darlington are both solid all-around players, who can do a little bit of everything.
"We need to utilize our size and the athleticism," Erickson said. "We have changed our offense up this year. We won't be calling as many plays, we're going to a freelance offense. It will give them more freedom and take advantage of our strengths."
But the first option in the offense will be pounding it in to VanDyke and Valgardson.
"We need Megan to develop into a post presence," Erickson said. "Michelle is so aggressive. If we can get them going, it will open things up for our shooters."
As for the season outlook, Erickson has high expectations despite the inexperience.
"We want to be right there at the end for the conference title," Erickson said. "We're playing a tough non-conference schedule that should prepare us when the conference season comes around."
The Frontier Conference figures to be wide open with Lewis-Clark State the overwhelming favorite.
"LC is the team to beat," Erickson said. "They very aggressive, but they're still beatable. Carroll will also very good."
Where does that leave his squad?
"I think we proved to people last year that we are a team to be reckoned with," Erickson said. "Teams are going to be more prepared for our style of play. We need to just win the games we should win and steal a few a long the way."
The Skylights and Grant MacEwen will tip off tonight at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m.