By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Montana State University-Northern women's basketball coach Mike Erickson doesn't have to be reminded of the last time his team played a conference game.
Nope, there is a daily reminder when he walks into his office in bold letters of the headline: "Bulldogs thump Lights."
Technically, it should be the Skylights, but it really doesn't matter to Erickson. All he wants is to erase that 80-54 loss to UM-Western in last year's Frontier Conference tournament from his mind, by starting off the conference season with a win over the 22nd-ranked Bulldogs tonight at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
"It's been there reminding me every day," Erickson said of the clipping. "I am excited to get the conference season started and put that game out of my mind."
While Erickson wants to forget the game, he isn't letting his players.
"If they didn't remember, they do now," he said. "I'm not going to beat it to death, but it should be some motivation. It wasn't our best performance by any means."
Really though, any time Northern and Western hook up there shouldn't be a lack of motivation. The two teams have played some very tough games in the past two seasons with Northern besting the Bulldogs at home the last two seasons.
Under ninth-year head coach Kevin Engellant, Western is looking to continue the standard of excellence it has set during his tenure.
Despite losing starting center Jill Feller for the season, the Bulldogs won the tournament championship game last season and advanced to the NAIA national tournament with a relatively inexperienced squad.
Just about everyone returns from last year's squad and a healthy Feller returns to make the Bulldogs a viable conference title contender again.
Feller is one of the most dominant post players in the conference. The 6-4 senior transferred in two years ago from Portland State and made her presence felt immediately. A back injury sidelined her for the season last year.
But this season, she appears to be completely healthy, averaging 15.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. She is also shooting 59 percent from the field. Basically, when she gets the ball inside - she scores. To make matters worse, Feller's frontcourt mate Katherine Sunwall also causes teams problems.
The 6-1 Sunwall was named the Frontier Conference player of the week after scoring 43 points, grabbing 19 rebounds and blocking seven shots in two games for the Bulldogs.
"Western is beating up teams inside," Erickson said. "That's their mainstay and we have to try and take it away."
It's not a totally implausible idea. Northern is one of a few teams that has comparable size and athleticism, but it boils down to execution.
"They run a lot of high-low looks," Erickson said. "It's something that we are very familiar with. We match-up pretty good in terms of size and quickness. But we have to play smarter defensively, we can't have our post players get into foul trouble because we aren't very deep up front."
To make matters worse for Erickson, the Bulldogs outside shooting is very capable of hurting the Skylights if they focus too much on defending inside.
Leading the Bulldog perimeter attack is former Havre High standout Alyssa Matter. Now a senior, Matter has given Erickson his fair share of headaches the past few years.
"I don't know what it is, but Matter absolutely kills us from the outside every time we play," he said. "She always seems to shoot well from outside against us."
To be even more specific, Matter seems to play well when she returns home. Last year, she basically kept Western in the game here in Havre, sinking five three-pointers en route to 19 points.
"We have to know where she is at all times," Erickson said.
Matter will also have some help on the perimeter from fellow senior Hillary Taylor, who is averaging 12.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game and is shooting 50 percent from three-point range. Sophomore point guard Megan Schmitz is also a factor from the outside, having made 24 three-pointers on the season.
"Our philosophy is still to take away the inside game and make them beat us from the outside," Erickson said. "Western is a very disciplined team and they run their sets very effectively. They are going to be patient and take good shots."
A key for Northern will be rebounding so the Bulldogs don't get second opportunities to reset up their offense.
"We have to give them one shot and one shot only on a possession," Erickson said. "They will capitalize on second opportunities. We also have to be smart on defense, not just in the post, but the entire team. It is going to take team-effort defensively."
While Northern is completely focusing its efforts on tonight's game against Western, Saturday's game against Montana Tech is also in the back of the Skylights' minds.
The Orediggers may only sport a 4-10 record so far, but Erickson is still wary of the game.
"Tech's a very streaky team," he said. "They have played very well at times this season against some good teams. They like to work the ball inside and have some good shooters."
Indeed, junior post player Marcie Alzheimer is averaging close to 10 points and nine rebounds per game, while senior shooting guard Kaila Fowler is averaging 11.1 points per game and is threat from three-point range.
"Tech has the same philosophies as Western," Erickson said. "The big thing is that they are going to come in here with nothing to lose and compete hard."
Erickson hopes his players, who are in the midst of a 10-game winning streak, are ready for it. The majority of his players know exactly what Frontier Conference play is all about and he hopes they respond accordingly.
"We seem to really get up for the games we need to get up for," Erickson said. "I think it's a sign of maturity. It's a different mentality for conference play. You're playing for keeps."