By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Montana State University-Northern women's basketball coach Mike Erickson noticed something this week during practice: During drills his players seemed to be working just a little harder, during sprints they were running just a little faster, and during game situations the play was just a little faster.
The Skylights are not on some new energy drink. Rather it's the adrenaline that comes with the opportunity to play conference opponents this weekend.
Northern will be in Helena today for the Frontier Conference Tip-off tournament and will face the host Saints tonight at 8 p.m. and UM-Western on Saturday at 6 p.m.
"It really brings the level of intensity up in practice when you know you're going to play teams from your conference, your mindset changes," Erickson said.
Although these games don't count in the overall conference standings, they still have plenty of incentive for the teams.
"We want to go in and let other teams know we'll be a respectable team in the conference," Erickson said. "But we don't want to place too much emphasis on them. It's still preseason, but it would be kind of nice to get a couple wins this weekend."
The wins won't come easy. Erickson admits his team may be walking into an ambush tonight against the 9-3 Saints.
Carroll, under new head coach Shawn Nelson, has his team playing quality basketball early in the season. The Saints' three losses have come to opponents ranked in the top 20, including a 76-71 loss to Dickinson State last weekend at the Peg Sarsfield memorial tournament in Butte.
Despite the loss, Carroll has transformed itself into a league-title contender and will have a distinct homecourt advantage with several fans and alumni coming to Helena for Saturday's NAIA semifinal playoff football game.
"It's going to be a packed house," Erickson said. "But we're hoping to spoil their parade a little. But we can't worry about all the outside factors. It's going to be a good learning experience."
The Carroll parade has been marching a little differently than last season. Nelson, who was an assistant with the men's team, brought many of his philosophies to the women's team, including the wide-open offense that the Saint men have flourished with.
"It's basically a clone of the men's program," Erickson said. "They've been shooting a lot of three-pointers and they're playing extremely hard. It's a big difference from last year, where they would pound it inside on every possession."
A couple players who are flourishing in the new system are senior Tara Zoanni and sophomore Andrea Hall. Zoanni is averaging 17 points per game for the Saints while Hall has developed into a serious threat from three-point range. Carroll also gets solid production from center Emili Woody, who's averaging 13 points and 12 rebounds per game.
"They really have no inside game," Erickson said. "Their posts set screens and rebound. We need to give them one shot and get all those long rebounds."
Northern will counter by playing a full-court game, hopefully wearing the Saints down.
"They only go about seven deep," Erickson said. "We are going to use our depth to try and tire them out. I know it's a lot tougher to shoot threes when you're tired. We are going to pressure them as much as possible and try and get them in a running game."
Defensively, Northern will have to extend its defense farther than it ever has before to guard against the Carroll shooters.
"We're really extending our half court defense," Erickson said. "We're picking them up at the half court line. We have to. They don't have one or two people who shoot the three, it's every one of them. And even if their shots aren't falling, they're going to keep pulling the trigger until they do."
While there is plenty of motivation against Carroll, there is a little added incentive when the Skylights play UM-Western on Saturday. The last time the two teams met the results weren't pretty. To put it bluntly, Northern got hammered by Western in Dillon last year. After knocking off the Bulldogs in Havre earlier in the season, Western set out to prove a point in Dillon and did so to the tune of a 86-45 drubbing. Losing is one thing; being demoralized by 41 points is an entirely different issue.
"I think that last game is in the back of the returning girls' mind," Erickson said. "Obviously, it's a motivating factor, but we're not out there to get even, we're trying to win the game."
Of course winning and getting a little revenge would be even better. And it is possible. No team in the Frontier Conference was hit harder by graduation than UM-Western. The Bulldogs lost all-everything forward Bobbi Suhr, who is Western's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. Also gone is all-conference forward Karly Tait and shooting guard Vanika Dickerson to graduation, while point guard Shyla Epler, who led the nation in assists, decided not to return. Also out for the season is 6-4 center Jill Feller, who will have back surgery.
With roughly 80 percent of its offense missing from last year, Western relies heavily on younger players for production.
The duo of Hillary Taylor and Megan Schmitz leads Western in scoring at 11 and 10 points per game respectively. Also seeing plenty of action is former Havre High standout Alyssa Matter, who is averaging 9.6 points per game and leads the team in steals. Western will be bolstered by the addition of 6-2 center Katherine Sunwall, who also competes for the Western volleyball team and had 13 points against the University of Montana in her debut.
"They're doing a lot of things different than the past," Erickson said. "The game I watched they even pressed a little which they never did before. They aren't pounding the ball inside like last year because they just don't have that luxury - instead they're taking a lot of mid-range jumpshots."
Still, with Western down this year, isn't revenge a definite possibility?
"We can't approach this game like that," Erickson said. "I'm not going to lie. I want my shot at beating them badly. But our players have to take care of it on the floor. There's a point we'd like to make, but you still have to play the game."