By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
For the first two years as head coach of the Montana State University-Northern Skylights basketball program, Mike Erickson almost needed to pass out name tags to go with all the new faces donning Skylight practice gear.
In all, Erickson brought 26 new players in those two years, which meant much of the early season was spent just having the players get to know each other and getting used to playing together.
Not this season. Erickson welcomes back seven players and three redshirts from last year's squad that finished 21-13 and advanced to the semifinals of the Frontier Conference tournament in Butte.
The Skylights already own a win on the season, but really kick the season into high gear when they travel to the University of Regina tournament this weekend.
"The last two years we spent so much time just getting comfortable playing together and finding the right combinations on the floor because we had so much turnover," he said. "This year we return our largest group of players since I've been there."
Obviously, the familiarity is there among the 10 returning players, but Erickson was happy with the progress they made in the off-season in terms of strength, conditioning and overall maturity.
"They really made some strides in the off-season to become better players and a better team," he said.
It wasn't for lack of motivation. By Erickson's and his players' standards, last season was somewhat of a disappointment. The Skylights battled inconsistency all season, particularly early on.
"We just could never find that consistency all season," he said. "It seemed like we played with no enthusiasm at times and had no real identity of what we wanted to do, or who we wanted to be."
Still, most teams will take 20 wins in a season, and Erickson won't trade them back. And in those wins, there were plenty of highlights for the Skylights.
Northern won six of its final eight games of the regular season, including weekend sweeps of UM-Western and Montana Tech, and Westminster College and Lewis-Clark State. The run culminated with an exciting 78-70 win over UGF in a packed MSU-Northern gymnasium in the first round of the Frontier Conference tournament.
The run ended there as the Skylights were drubbed by UM-Western 80-54 in the tournament semifinals. It's hardly how Erickson or his team envisioned ending the season.
"To end the season with the worst game of the season was a real letdown," Erickson said. "But I feel it may be a great reminder to us of how hard we have to work and that winning in this league does not just happen overnight."
And winning the league is precisely the Skylights' goal this season.
"We really expect to be in the run for a conference championship and a chance to travel to the national tournament this season," he said. "With the right attitude, the right work ethic, we could give ourselves a chance to be in that position."
Among the returnees are six players who started games last season, led by 6-4 senior Megan Valgardson, the Skylights' lone senior.
Valgardson averaged 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, while earning all-conference honors.
She will be joined up front by Michele VanDyke, who averaged 6.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per game last year, and midseason transfer DeLayne Johnston. The 6-1 Johnston transferred in from the University of Montana last year and averaged 3.4 points and 3.8 rebounds in 16 games. With a full year in the system, Erickson feels Johnston will be a factor up front.
Another key returnee is sophomore forward/guard Jessi Reome, who led the Frontier in three-point field goal percentage as a true freshman. Reome, who came back in terrific shape this season, is a deadly shooter and averaged 10.4 points per game, while sinking 68 treys for the year.
Northern returns plenty of talent at the guard position as part-time starter Kristie Pullin and backup Jena Heggem both return. Pullin has been in the program longer than any player. She brings defensive scrappiness and some flashy passing. Pullin averaged 4.2 points and dished out 84 assists last season. She also picked up 41 steals and is a pesky defender. Heggem showed tremendous poise as a true freshman last season, backing up both guard positions. She is a quality outside shooter and at 5-10 is tough for smaller guards to defend.
After being forced into action as a true freshman last season, Sheena Darlington will redshirt this season in hopes of diversifying her game and becoming more of an outside shooting threat.
Northern should get immediate help from its talented trio of red shirts from last season. Center Ashley Trulock will provide another big presence inside. The 6-4 Trulock is very strong and will be a force inside on offense and defense.
Guard/forward Heather Riener brings versatility and athleticism to the Skylights. At 5-10, Riener is quick enough to play guard, but still strong enough to play forward with her penetrating style of basketball.
Northern will also get quality minutes from guard Laura Keaster, who is one of the Skylights' top defenders and a solid three-point shooter. Keaster can play both guard positions comfortably.
Add to the 10 returnees three solid junior college recruits, and Erickson feels he has a recipe for success.
Jaci Heny averaged 15 points and three assists a game and earned all-conference and all-region honors for Sheridan Community College.
Also joining Northern is transfer guard Ashlie Griffin, who comes to Northern out of Otero Junior College in La Hunta, Colo. Griffin is another deadly three-point gunner, shooting 48 percent - sixth in the nation - from beyond the arc while earning all-conference and all-region honors.
Northern's third recruit, Camille Gardner, will also help out at the guard position. Gardner averaged 11 points, four assists and five rebounds per game for Dixie Junior College last season. She is a true point guard who can control the tempo of the game.
With the overabundance of guards, Erickson makes no bones about how his team will play this season.
"We should be able to play a lot more up-tempo on both sides of the court," Erickson said. "Everybody is familiar with the style of play we like to play, and new recruits played that way in previous schools. We should be a fun team to watch."
Erickson also believes it will be a different team to watch as well.
"I really feel this year the fans are going to see a different Skylight team from last season," he said. "Not only because of the maturity over the off-season, but the character of the players. They are quality individuals that have a desire to become successful on and off the court. Whatever the upcoming season reveals, I feel we will be a team that plays together, plays with enthusiasm, and plays with Skylight Pride."
Erickson's staff returns assistant coach Warren Quick and adds new assistant coach Robin Bogar.