By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Although it's October, the round orange things rolling around the Montana State University-Northern gymnasium won't be pumpkins. Strange as it may sound, college basketball season is looming and the Lights and Skylights will kick off their 2003-2004 season with a pair of alumni games on Saturday.
It will be a special night for the Skylight program as the 1993 NAIA national championship team will be honored at halftime of the men's game. The majority of the members from that championship team will be playing in the alumni game as well.
"This is a really big thing for our program," said Skylights head coach Mike Erickson. "We're trying to bring back the tradition that this team helped build. It's great that our girls get to see that and meet them one-on-one."
The squad will feature the entire coaching staff from the championship season as former head coach and current University of Charleston head coach Sherry Winn returns to Havre. Her longtime and current assistant Lynne Fitzgerald will accompany her, and former assistant Jerry Wier will also be in attendance.
The alumni squad will feature: Shelly (Oakland) Stremcha, Kari (Fike) Filius, Sheila Ausmus, Jennifer (McGlothlen) Tremblay, Kristin Lawerence, Kim (Fike) Finn, Jennifer (Horak) Simonson, Charna Ophus, Nikki Fetter and Jodi Kruta.
Filius won't be playing because she is pregnant and former All-American Kristi Kincaid couldn't be in attendance. Still, the alumni squad features plenty of talent.
Kruta and Lawerence rank second and fifth on the Skylights all-time scoring list while Ophus holds the career mark for assists and Ausmus for three-pointers made.
"The alumni gave us all we could handle last year," Erickson said. "And they've added some more players. The older you get, the smarter you are on the floor. It doesn't matter how good of shape the alumni are in, they are going to be competitive."
All of that experience will be a stark contrast to Erickson's Skylight squad. The youthful Skylights will have plenty of players making their college debuts.
"We basically have seven players playing in their first college game," Erickson said. "It will be interesting to see how they react to it. We've told them not to be afraid to make mistakes."
Northern does return a solid core of players including starters Kristie Pullin, Khadiga Mohamed, Anna Bateman and Brett Vermandel along with reserve Kristal Lohse. Bateman, who was bothered by foot problems at the end of last season, will not play as she is still recovering from off-season foot surgery.
Erickson will also look for some production from transfers Michelle VanDyke, Chasi Buffington and Megan Valgardson. All three have previous college experience and are expected to be heavy contributors.
Perhaps the thing that Erickson is most interested in is the reaction of his talented freshman class. Jessi Reome, Heather Riener, Sheena Darlington, Ashley Trulock, Laura Keaster and Jenna Heggem will all be donning a Skylights uniform for the first time. And Erickson will be watching closely how his youngsters adjust to the bigger, faster more intense college game.
"I've been waiting all year for this," Erickson said. "You go out and recruit and build a team, you can't wait to see them playing against someone other than themselves."
Thus far into the season, Erickson likes what he sees.
"Defensively, we're ahead of where we were last year," Erickson said. "We are so much deeper and more athletic. Our defense is going to keep us in games."
Like Erickson, Lights head coach Shawn Huse has plenty of new faces joining his nine returning players. The Lights will probably suit up 16 players for the game.
"It's going to be tricky but we're going to try and get everyone some minutes and see how they react to the emotion and intensity of a game situation," Huse said.
However, with his first non-conference games only a week away, Huse isn't going to burn out his starters this early in the season. Returning All-American and leading scorer Larry Morinia had some foot problems in early workouts and won't see a ton of action.
With so many new faces, Huse is using the game as chance to see which players work best in certain combinations.
Huse returns starting point guard Lamar Morinia, sometime starter Zach McLean, starter Travis Moran, top reserves Landen Grant and Brian McGowan and redshirts Leo Bullchild and Walter Runsabove.
They will be joined by transfers Trenton Harbaugh, Dustin Sawejka, Berhane Williams, Pathe Yatera and Braden Draggoo along with true freshmen Cody Gillespie, Kellen Hall, Cory Cromwell and Ed Lowe.
"This is a good opportunity to give some our kids that are going to redshirt a little bit of the limelight," Huse said. "It's a long season and they're going to have to be full-time practice players and fans so it's nice to give them a little taste of what they're working towards."
The Lights will be taking on a squad led by last year's captain, Charlie Ereaux. Joining Ereaux will be alumni squad regulars Buck Merriwether, Tim Henry and Art Krueger. Also returning is Tim Vandemars, who ranks 12th on Northern's all-time scoring list.
Other players include Powell Becker, Tom Hennessy, Shawn Wetzel, Walter Armstrong, Lee Larson, Josh Larson and current assistant coaches Derek Azure and Tabarus Phillips.
"Buck is a fixture at these games and he plays a lot," Huse said. "I also have heard that Powell is in good shape and playing. And Charlie, it doesn't matter what kind of shape he's in, you know he'll play hard."
"It should be a nice competitive game to start our season," Huse said. "This will be our only test before we start our nonconference season next week."
The Skylight alumni game starts at 6 p.m. with the Lights alumni game to follow. The 1993 championship squad will be honored at halftime of the men's game.