Havre Daily News sports editor
The Frontier Conference men's and women's basketball season is still in its infancy. However, if the opening weekend of play was an indication of what the next two months hold, fans better buckle up for a wild ride.
On the men's side of things, there were few surprises during the opening weekend of play, but many close games. An obvious amount of parity was evident in the conference.
The Carroll College Fighting Saints, who were unanimously picked to win the league this season, came into the opening weekend of play as the No. 2-ranked team in NAIA basketball, and that is the way they came out. The Saints picked up two victories on the weekend.
The surprise of the weekend may have come from the Montana State University-Northern Lights, who went on the road with a roster sprinkled with key players who had yet to see a Frontier Conference game. The Lights posted wins at UM-Western and Montana Tech, firmly establishing themselves as an instant contender for a conference championship in 2006.
Aside from Carroll and Northern, the weekend was loaded with splits. No. 19 Westminster College dropped what was only its fourth game of the entire season, leaving the Griffins in a logjam at 1-1 in conference play, along with Rocky Mountain College, Tech and Western. Only the University of Great Falls and Lewis-Clark State went winless on the weekend. Surprisingly, the Warriors had been ranked in the Top 25 coming into the weekend and had just two losses against 12 wins on the year.
Something will have to give on Saturday night as the Lights host Carroll. However, Northern will have a tougher time getting to Saturday night's game undefeated. The Lights first have to contend with a tough RMC team on Friday night in Havre, while the Saints are at struggling UGF.
In other games to watch this weekend Tech (1-1, 9-7) is at Western (1-1, 7-11) on Friday night and LC State (0-2, 12-4) is at Westminster (1-1, 11-4) on Saturday night. The game in Salt Lake City is especially critical to the Warriors, who can ill afford to start the conference season 0-3.
As the season heats up, so too is Western swingman Ty Palmer. The junior is leading the league in scoring at 19.1 points per game. Palmer is also tops in the league in free-throw percentage and second in 3-pointers made.
As wild a start as the men's season got off to, things got even more complicated last weekend on the women's side of things. Carroll College, who had been ranked No. 7 in the nation coming into the weekend, dropped games at home to Lewis-Clark State and Westminster College, leaving the Saints at 0-2 heading into this weekend.
UM-Western (2-0, 15-2) and LC State (2-0, 14-2) were the only two left undefeated after dust settled on the first weekend of play. Western's wins over MSU-Northern and the University of Great Falls helped them climb to No. 6 in this week's NAIA poll. LC State moved up to No. 14.
Carroll dropped to No. 15 this week, while Northern, which rebounded from its first loss in more than a month by defeating Montana Tech on Saturday night, fell one spot in the poll, to No. 24.
Despite all of the upsets, it is clear that the Frontier Conference may be one of the strongest leagues in all of NAIA basketball this season. The reason for that may be the dramatic improvement of Westminster. The Griffins are 8-7 this season and are sitting very nicely at 1-1 in league play.
The main reason the Griffins are so improved is the play of Shalee Fackrell, who is leading the conference in scoring with an astounding 26 points per game. The Griffins will be looking to post another upset on Saturday night when they host LC State in Salt Lake, which should be the featured game of the week in the conference.
Northern will also have a pair of very interesting games this weekend, as does Carroll. The Skylights will welcome Rocky Mountain College to the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse on Friday night. The two teams hooked up in a nonconference affair in Wolf Point in late November, with the Skylights coming out on top. The game is the first conference game between the two schools since MSU-N first-year head coach Chris Mouat left RMC, where he was an assistant. Friday night's game also marks the return of former Havre High standout Jeri Matter to Havre.
Meanwhile, Carroll will try to avoid a disastrous start to its conference season when it visits a UGF team that only has five wins this year, but carries plenty of firepower to give the Saints a difficult game in Great Falls.
On Saturday night, the Skylights and Saints will hook up in Havre with plenty of lasting conference implications on the line. Another former HHS standout will also be on the floor during that game when the Saints' Jolene Fuzesy comes to town. Fuzesy is leading the conference in 3-point shooting this season.