By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team is in a race right now, according to head coach Mike Erickson.
It's a race against a very familiar opponent, but it isn't measured by wins and losses and there is no finish line, you see the Skylights are racing against themselves.
"I told the ladies we have to run our own race," Erickson said. "It's still very early in the season and we are still competing mainly against ourselves to get better."
The non-conference schedule will allow Erickson to measure his team's progress in the race. The Skylights will have a pair of non-conference games this weekend at the University of Great Falls Classic. Northern will face a very strong University of Mary squad tonight at 6 p.m. and a solid Black Hills State unit on Saturday at 4 p.m. at McLaughlin Center on the UGF campus.
Despite returning a solid core of players, the Skylights are still agonizingly young overall. Three games into the season, Erickson still has to remind himself that all of the talent on the floor cannot substitute for game experience.
"We're still in that learning process," Erickson said. "We have the potential to be very good, but we have to have some patience. It's going to take time and we're trying to stay positive. The good thing is that they are improving every week."
The Skylights, 3-1 on the season, are coming off a less than inspiring performance in a 75-56 loss to Minot State.
"All we had to do was watch the first half of the Minot game on film and the ladies saw what they did wrong," Erickson said. "There was just a lack of hustle and a lack of intensity. They are definitely a little embarrassed about the way they played."
And Erickson will be the first to tell you that his team can't play that way this weekend and expect to win or even compete.
Northern faces perhaps its toughest opponent of the season tonight in the Mary Marauders.
Mary, 4-0 on the season, was ranked fourth in the NAIA Division II preseason poll. The Marauders return just about every player off of last year's team that finished 26-6. However, one of those losses came at the hands of the Skylights in the same tournament. It was Northern's first win last year, but things could be a little tougher this year.
Thus far, all four of Mary's wins came over Frontier Conference schools. The Marauders spanked UGF 110-67 and Montana Tech 103-66 to open the season. Mary also handled UM-Western 79-57 and edged Carroll College 82-70 in overtime.
"They've beaten up on our conference," Erickson said. "But they're beatable."
Mary returns senior forward Sarah Leer, who was the second leading scorer in the DAC-10 conference last year, averaging 15.5 points per game. Also returning is junior forward Jessica Zundel, who averaged 13 points and eight rebounds a game. In the backcourt, junior Natalie Brunner averaged 11 points while handling the point guard duties.
"Mary is very athletic and has a lot of returning players from last year," Erickson said. "They like to penetrate and dish the ball. It's a motion offense and they feel they are athletic enough to take anyone off the dribble."
But Erickson feels confident his players can defend Mary's aggressive style because they have to defend against that style every day.
"It's very similar to what we try to do offensively," Erickson said. "But they've been running this system for three years so they know how to execute."
On Saturday, Northern will face another solid squad in the Black Hill State University Yellowjackets.
BHSU finished last season 11-17 with one of those wins coming over the Skylights early in the season.
The Jackets return three starters off of last year's squad and were picked to finish third in the DAC-10 this season.
"Black Hills is more of an attacking team," Erickson said. "They gamble a lot on defense trying to create turnovers. They'll try to trap you and force you to make bad decisions. It's kind of unorthodox style to try and get teams into an uptempo style of play."
Black Hills is led by junior 6-1 center Joni Lunney, who averaged 14 points and six rebounds a game last year. Joining her up front is 6-0 forward Heather Combs, who chipped in with 10 points and five rebounds a game. The Jackets also have solid, experienced guards in senior Amanda Mortenson and juniors Kayla Hughes and Trish Grablander.
"We have to take care of the ball," Erickson said. "Turnovers have been costly for us all season. But they really hurt against good teams."
Erickson will once again rely on his full-court, aggressive defense until the Skylights' offense comes out of its doldrums. Despite the return of leading scorer Anna Bateman, Northern's offense has been anemic at times.
"Anna's still out of shape," Erickson said. "She was in a boot for six months and her legs just aren't conditioned yet."
While Bateman tries to return to form, Erickson hopes transfer Michele VanDyke is poised for a breakout game.
"Michele's going to be a very good player," Erickson said of the University of Montana transfer. "Her confidence level isn't where it needs to be, she has to remember that she didn't play in games last year and that's she still a freshman in terms of game experience."
Erickson will also look to seniors Khadiga Mohammed and Brettney Vermandel and junior transfer Megan Valgardson for scoring inside, while getting some outside shooting from sophomore Kristie Pullin and freshman Jessi Reome.
"We're playing in Great Falls," Erickson said. "It's not a home game but it's close. We've always seem to shoot well in that gym, hopefully it continues this weekend."