Havre Daily News Sports Editor
The Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team may have a new head coach and a few new faces this season, but fans can expect the same winning attitude that has been a staple of the Skylights' program for more than two decades.
The 2005-06 Skylights under the direction of first-year head coach Chris Mouat will debut Saturday night at the annual MSU-Northern alumni game. On Sunday the Skylights' season gets under way for real when they host Thompson Rivers University of Kamloops, British Columbia, at 3 p.m.
Mouat came to MSU-Northern after a stint as an assistant coach at Rocky Mountain College. He replaces Skylight head coach Mike Erickson. Erickson resigned last spring and now coaches high school basketball in Hardin.
Mouat takes over a Skylights team that went a solid 21-10 last season. Northern made an early exit from the Frontier Conference tournament, however, falling to Rocky in overtime in the first round of the tournament.
With all of the changes around the Skylights program, it would be easy for some to label this season as a rebuilding year. However, Mouat sees things much differently.
”We expect to be competitive every night,“ Mouat said. ”The transition has been really good, and most of the credit for it goes to our players.
”They have really worked hard to adjust to our system and buy into what we're trying to do here,“ he added. ”Practice so far has been really good, and the attitude of this team has just been amazing.“
The fact that the Skylights return two starters from last year's team as well as a standout transfer doesn't hurt their chances of being good in Mouat's first season at the helm.
Senior point guard Camille Gardner and senior shooting guard Jaci Heny are back to give the Skylights some talent and experience in the starting lineup. And former Havre High standout Jayla McPherson returns home from the University of Great Falls to play her final season of Frontier basketball for the Skylights. Chester native Michelle VanDyke is also back in the MSU-Northern camp, giving Mouat a very solid foundation.
”I was very fortunate to inherit some very good players,“ Mouat said. ”We have a lot of experience and a lot of talent on this team and I think it will show right away.
”All of the girls on our roster spent a lot of time this summer in the gym, working hard preparing for this season,“ he added. ”You have to give them a lot of credit for their attitudes, and I think it will all pay off when we start the season.“
The Skylights also have another quality shooting guard back this season to help with the scoring load. Junior Ashlie Griffin is back after missing most of last year with a foot injury.
”Ashlie coming back will help us out a lot,“ Mouat said. ”She is a very good shooter, and she can handle the ball well.“
Chelsie Searle is a junior college transfer who should also bolster the Skylights' offense this season. Neesha Bravard, Big Sandy native Jena Heggem and Ashley Trulock round out the roster, and all three will be expected to help the team this season.
”I think you will see we have a lot of talent and good athletes on this team,“ Mouat said. ”Offensively we are going to look to push the ball up and down the floor because we have a lot of players who can score in transition. But with a great point guard like Camille, we will also be very sound in the half court as well.
”Defensively we are going to get after people in the half court to start the season,“ he added. ”I think we will be a very good defensive team.“
It won't take Mouat long to find out just how good his Skylights can be this season. Although Saturday night's alumni game is just an exhibition, it is always a very competitive game.
That is because of MSU-Northern's strong tradition in women's basketball and all of the fine players who have come through the program throughout the years.
This year's alumni roster includes former NAIA All-Americans Kari (Fike) Filius and Kim (Fike) Finn. The twin guards starred for Northern in the early '90s and both graduated in 1993. Former All-American Rhea (Fry) Miller is also back to compete in the game this year. Dani (Davison) Holgate, a 1999 MSU-Northern graduate, is also on the roster, as is 1997 graduate Kelsey Burgmaier. Kelly Robbins, Kelly Mazurkiewicz, Anna Bateman and Ronna Wright round out the alumni roster.
After the alumni game Saturday night, the Skylights will have little time to rest before jumping into regular season action on Sunday afternoon against Thompson Rivers University. Mouat knows little about the British Columbia school, but said that at this point in the season he is more concerned with how his team plays than he is about his opponent.
”You always want one more practice to prepare,“ Mouat said. ”But we have been at it for three weeks, so it is time to play a game against somebody other than each other.
”The alumni game and the game on Sunday will be very good for us,“ he added. ”It will give us a chance to find out where we are and then evaluate what we need to do to get better.“
Saturday night's Skylights alumni game will tip off at 6 p.m. at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse. Sunday's regular- season opener against Thompson Rivers University will begin at 3 p.m.