Havre Daily News sports editor
The Montana State University-Northern Skylights haven't played a basketball game for more than three weeks. To some, it might have well been a year ago, given what the team has been through.
The last time Northern took the floor, they played valiantly in a 10-point loss to Portland State in Portland, Ore., on Nov. 13. Early the following morning, the team's world was turned upside down when the van they were returning to Havre in crashed in western Montana.
That accident and the plight of the Northern basketball team has been well chronicled. And while the effects from the accident still linger, it is time for the healing process to begin. Part of that process begins on Saturday night when the Skylights square off against Rocky Mountain College in Wolf Point in a nonconference game.
Northern's last three scheduled games over the past two weeks were cancelled due to the accident. But MSU-N first-year head coach Chris Mouat said the time has come for his team to start putting its basketball season back together.
“We are going down to Wolf Point to play Rocky and we are going to make up the game against Great Falls next Wednesday,” Mouat said. “That is what we know right now.”
Preparation to play on Saturday will be short for the Skylights, much like their bench. The accident left guards Chelsie Searle and Ashlie Griffin with injuries that will keep them out for the remainder of the season. The Skylights were already short-handed after they lost forward Jayla McPherson to a season-ending knee injury.
For practice purposes, Mouat picked up MSU-Northern volleyball standout and former Havre High basketball player Jeanna McPherson as well former Skylight Heather Reiner and former Malta High School standout Kylee Star. The trio, along with the rest of the Skylight team, began practicing on Monday. Mouat said everything surrounding the team this week has been positive.
“As far as basketball and practice is concerned, everything has been really good,” he said. “All the credit for that goes to the kids on this team.
“We have only had three practices, but they have been doing great things on the floor,” he added. “And they have shown a lot of resiliency. It is amazing to see how this team has turned everything so positive.”
Of course, practice has not been easy. The trio of new players has been forced to come up to speed with Mouat's system. Still, Mouat said, even the transition of adding three new players has been something that has gone well.
“The kids we brought in are doing everything they can, and they are doing a great job with everything we have asked them to do,” Mouat said. “And sometimes it is a lot.
“But we feel very fortunate to have found all of them,” he added. “All three of them work really hard every day and they have added the depth to our practices that we really needed in order to get things going again.”
Getting things going on the basketball court is exactly what Mouat and the Skylights want to do. No one is forgetting the accident or their injured teammates. But just playing basketball again is a major step for this team, and a return to somewhat of a normal life.
“It is hard at practice when we look around and girls that we all love and are used to having there are not there with us,” Mouat said. “But it is the right time for us to start playing basketball again, and I think the girls are really looking forward to just being on the floor again.”
While bystanders might think that just playing again is enough of an accomplishment for the Skylights, Mouat and his team aren't looking at it that way. Before the season began, Northern was picked to be among the upper-tier teams in the Frontier Conference this season. Now, with three of its top 10 players gone, it would be easy to write the team off. But no one inside the MSU-N program is thinking any such thing.
“Our leadership on this team is outstanding and it starts with the seniors,” Mouat said. “But it also filters down through everybody else. Since we started practicing again, they have shown an amazing ability to turn a bad situation into a big positive.
“These kids have really taken a no-nonsense approach to practice,” he added. “We're going to go out there and show that we can still compete night in and night out. That is a credit to the great kids and great players we have on this team.”
Saturday's game against RMC will tell Mouat a lot about what he can expect for the remainder of the season. Also, he'll be coaching against the school he left to come to Havre.
“Playing Rocky in Wolf Point is a real positive for us for a number of reasons,” he said. “It is a tough road game for us, and I basically consider it a home game for them.
“This game will tell us a lot about how far we have come and where we need to go,” he added. “But no matter what, it will be good to just get back on the floor and play basketball again.”
Saturday's game between Northern and Rocky Mountain College will get under way at 7 p.m. at Wolf Point High School. Northern will play its first home game in a month when it hosts UGF on Wednesday.