By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Pardon the Montana State University-Northern basketball teams for not getting nostalgic when discussing the Warrior Gym on the Lewis-Clark State campus in Lewiston, Idaho.
For the Skylights and Lights players and coaches, the best part of the historic old gym is that it is now history.
Northern will instead be playing in the brand new $15 million Lewis-Clark Activity Center tonight when they take on the Warriors at 6 and 8 p.m.
The old gym has been called many things by players and coaches over the year. Some adjectives that come to mind are: tiny, cramped, claustrophobic, tight and ridiculously small. But there have been more colorful descriptions like: cracker box, band box, high school gym and cave.
Regardless, the distinct home-court advantage of Warrior Gym is now gone with the introduction of the spanking new and spacious activity center.
Neither of Northern's coaches are exactly sad to see it go.
"It was a difficult place to play," said Skylights head coach Mike Erickson. "It gave them a whole different advantage with how small the court was. Now it's more of an even keel for teams coming in there."
Said Lights head coach Shawn Huse: "This new gym will definitely have an effect on the way LC plays. I don't care if we never played there before; it will be better than the old gym. That place was tough. The fans were right on top of you and the refs. It was just a very cramped environment."
Hopefully the new surroundings will translate to better success at LC, because the Skylights and Lights, or most teams in the conference for that matter, haven't had much success there.
Erickson and the Skylights will be out to exchange places with the Warriors in the Frontier Conference standings. The Warriors come into tonight in a second- place tie with UM-Western, while carrying a 7-3 league record and an 18-8 record overall.
Northern sits a half game back at 7-4 with a 21-8 overall record. A win tonight could figure big in the race for the conference tournament's second seed.
"We want to win every time we step on the floor," Erickson said. "But we know how important these next three games are for us. Finishing second in the season would be big."
But that's a few weeks down the road. Erickson's main focus has been a Lewis-Clark squad that features a solid mixture of size, athleticism and quickness and is ripe for revenge, following a 74-56 thrashing at the hands of the Skylights on Jan. 22 in Havre.
"They are going to be fired up and ready to play us," Erickson said. "We expect a very physical game. It always is when you go there. You need to play strong against LC."
The Warriors are led by forward Ashley Baker, who is one of the most explosive players in the conference, averaging 15.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.
Baker dropped 21 points and 15 rebounds on the Skylights in the first meeting. Lewis-Clark will also be playing on a lot of emotion as point guard Nikki Haerling will be joining the team this weekend for the first time since tragedy struck her family a month ago. Haerling's grandfather and younger sister were killed in a car crash near Moses Lake, Wash., on their way to watch Haerling play on Jan. 29.
"It sounds like Haerling is going to play," Erickson said. "It will be her first game back and they will be playing with a lot of emotion."
Haerling is a solid decision maker who can shoot from the outside and is averaging 14.8 points a game.
Lewis-Clark averages 75 points per game and leads the conference in rebounding, pulling down 36 boards a game. It's an area in which Erickson wants to see his team improve.
"They beat us up on the boards the first time," he said. "We can't have that happen again. We gave them second chances last time, but they weren't shooting well. We can't expect that to happen again."
The Warriors were downright frigid from the outside against Northern. Lewis-Clark was just 4-27 from 3-point range and top long-range shooter Cami Kalbfleisch went scoreless in the game.
"Our defense had something to do with their shooting," Erickson said. "We got right up into them and forced them out further."
The one thing Erickson couldn't control this week was the health of his team. All but one Skylight player - Jaci Heny - has been battling cold and flu-like symptoms. The sickness has hit all of the Northern teams and it got so bad that Erickson didn't even practice on Tuesday.
"Everybody's got it but Jaci, even the coaches," he said. "This means that we aren't going to play as long of stretches and our bench will be really important."
The Lights have also been battling sickness, but they are more sick of losing on the road. Northern hasn't won a game on the road in the conference season and is mired in a four-game losing streak. That recent run of bad luck doesn't bode well as the Lights face what should be the toughest road trip of the season.
"There is no doubt that this will be our toughest road test," Huse said. "We have LC tonight and Westminster on Saturday. Not only are we logging some miles, but we are facing two of the top teams in the conference."
Indeed, Lewis-Clark sits in third in the conference standings with a 7-3 record. However, one of Northern's three conference wins came against the Warriors in Havre.
"They are definitely looking of a little revenge," Huse said. "They weren't real happy about getting beat up here and they are going to come out fired up."
There may not be a more athletic team in the conference than the Warriors. Every player who steps on the floor is capable of putting up big numbers on any given night.
Senior guard Danny Allen averages 14 points per game, while 6-9 forward Martin Brothers adds 13.2 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. Both are all-conference players who can dominate. Also joining them is shooting guard Joey Ray, who missed the trip to Havre earlier this season. Ray is a deadly shooter who can get hot in a hurry.
The Warriors have solid size in 6-9 Jared Tikker and 6-8 James Idoko and 6-5 slasher John Moore.
"They have so much size and athleticism," Huse said. "It's a real challenge for us defensively."
Northern's road woes have caused some sleepless nights for Huse, but he still remains positive.
"We're on the verge of breaking through," Huse said. "I really believe we are close. It just comes down to doing all those little things for 40 minutes to get that win."
Tonight's games can be heard locally on 92.5 KPQX-FM.