Havre Daily News sports editor
The race is on. With seven games in the books in the 2006 Frontier Conference basketball season, everything that happens from here will have lasting implications for the conference tournament in Butte, which is just a mere month away.
Before we look ahead to the second half of the season, it might be interesting to take a look back at the first half.
On the men's side, there are few surprises in the conference standings at the halfway point. Carroll College is leading the pack as expected, with highly touted Westminster College lurking just a game behind. Then, there's a logjam for third place and that is where things get interesting. Rocky Mountain College, Lewis-Clark State and Montana State University-Northern all sit at 4-3 in conference play.
The Bears might be the wild card in the race for the regular-season championship. Last weekend RMC had a shot to beat Carroll, and that would have put them into a first-place tie heading into the second half of the season. Even though the Bears couldn't seal the deal against the Saints, they have shown they are intent on fighting for a conference championship.
MSU-Northern, on the other hand, is somewhat of an enigma. The Lights are the only team to boast a win over Carroll this season, and they didn't just beat the Saints, they clobbered them three weeks ago in Havre. Then Northern preceded to turn around and drop lopsided affairs at Westminster and LC State. The loss to the Warriors was even more painful, considering the Lights offense managed just 42 points. Less than a week later, Northern turned around and rung up 95 points in a close victory over the University of Great Falls.
UM-Western is also in the thick of things, sitting alone in fifth place at 3-4. Montana Tech and UGF bring up the rear.
The women's standings at the halfway point look just about how the coaches predicted they would. After an intense battle last Thursday night, LC State (7-0) and UM-Western (6-1) appear to be headed for a showdown on the final weekend of the regular season to decide the conference championship.
Carroll College has been on a rollercoaster ride in its first seven league games. The Saints dropped their first two games and almost lost to MSU-N to make it three in a row. Still, the Saints, who were predicted to compete for the league championship this season, are fighting to stay with LC State and Western at 4-3.
There is no doubt who the most improved team in the league is this season and who the team with the hardest luck is. Westminster is sitting in fourth place at 3-4, tied with RMC. The Griffins already have more wins this season than they did all of last year.
Meanwhile, the MSU-N Skylights have dropped four straight games and three straight on the road. The Skylights lost three of those four games by a combined total of seven points. The only time during the skid that Northern wasn't in a position to win at the end of the game was a 20-point loss at LC State two weeks ago. The Skylights sit at 2-5, tied with UGF, while Montana Tech is in last place at 1-6.
The season may only be half over, but it isn't hard to figure out who the league MVP has been, and who it will be at season's end, at least on the women's side. Westminster forward Shalee Fackrell has dominated the Frontier Conference this season, averaging 27 points and 10 rebounds per game. Despite solid efforts from Western's Katherine Sunwall, MSU-N's Jaci Heny and LC State's Ashley Baker, to name a few, Fackrell appears to be in a class all by herself.
The men's MVP picture is much more clouded at the halfway point. Western's Ty Palmer leads the league in scoring, but UGF's Tyrone Witherspoon nearly averages a double-double, and RMC's Jeff Nickolei does average a double-double, including leading the league in rebounding. Westminster has a slew of candidates led by Nick Booth and Jared Ruiz, and reigning league MVP Jeff Hays of Carroll College can't be left out either. Neither can MSU-N senior Jordan Matthews.
Three ranked teams are heading into tonight's start of the second half of the season on the women's side. LC State's win over Western moved it up to No. 6 in the latest NAIA poll, while the Bulldogs fell to No. 9. Carroll sits at No. 14.
Saturday night's outcomes could have a big impact on the league standings as Carroll visits LC State and UM-Western is at MSU-N.
The men's side has two ranked teams, led by the Saints, who have climbed back to No. 3 in the latest NAIA poll. The Saints have been ranked as high as No. 2 this season. Westminster is also in the Top 20, sitting comfortably at No. 18.
The Saints' fate might be sealed this weekend as they embark on their toughest road trip of the year. Carroll is at LC State tonight and the Saints visit Westminster on Saturday night. A win in Salt Lake City would give the Saints the edge for the league's regular-season championship, but winning in Salt Lake is much easier said than done, even for Carroll.