George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Starting over. Sometimes every one wants a chance to do just that. And in sports, every basketball, baseball or hockey team, for that matter starts over with each new season. On Saturday night at the MSUNorthern Fieldhouse, the Montana State University-Northern women’s basketball team will start a brand new season when the Skylights host the University of Calgary in a nonconference game. And in doing so, the Skylights will put one of the most memorable seasons in recent memory, both good and bad, in their rearview mirror. In 2005-2006, the Skylights endured one of the biggest rollercoaster rides any sports program can go through. In his first year as head coach at MSU-N, Chris Mouat lost starting power forward Jayla McPherson to a seasonending knee injury extremely early on. Then, in November, the van that was carrying the Skylights back to Havre from a road trip to the Portland, Ore., area crashed on an icy stretch of Interstate 90 in Western Montana. The accident left the MSU-N team without starting guard Chelsie Searle and reserve guard Ashlie Griffith for the remainder of the season. Still, Northern carried on, and in the process, became one of the feel good stories of the year. The short-handed but-talented Skylights battled to a fourth-place finish in the loaded Frontier Conference and received an atlarge bid to the NAIA national tournament where they upset highly regarded Oklahoma Christian before falling to The Masters College in the quarterfinals. Northern finished the year with a 20-10 overall record. With both a magical and difficult season behind them, the Skylights are ready to embark on a new journey. It is one that will have its share of challenges considering Northern graduated the best backcourt duo in the country in guards Jaci Heny and Camille Gardner. Heny earned second-team All-American status as a senior and is now an assistant coach at MSU-N. Gardner was also a first-team All-Conference point guard. “It’s not hard, it is actually impossible to replace a player like Jaci Heny,” Mouat said. “She is an incredible talent and she did some amazing things for this program, both on and off the court. “And Camille Gardner left some huge shoes to fill at the point guard position,” he added. “So we really can’t approach this season like that. We are a new team and this is a new season. That is how we’re approaching this year.” But sometimes something lost is something gained. Despite incredible odds that will be well documented as the season progresses, Searle is once again playing basketball at MSU-N. She sustained horrific injuries in the accident and has fought to not only make it back, but to be a leader on what should be a talented Northern roster. “Chelsie is our walking miracle,” Mouat said. “She’s really not supposed to be here playing basketball again. But she has worked so hard, mostly on her own, to get back to this team and this program. I pinch myself when I see her out there on the court.” After a year of rehabbing, the Skylights will also benefit from having the services of McPherson once again. A former Havre High standout and University of Great Falls transfer, McPherson is a tenacious post player with a pension for rebounding and playing physical, hard-nosed defense. “Jayla is a work in progress and she is continuously getting better,” Mouat said. “She has worked extremely hard in the weight room and on the court to come back from a difficult injury. I think you will see her get better and better as the season goes on.
“Both players have been through a lot in the last twelve months,” Mouat added. “And we are very fortunate to have both of them back because they are great people and they bring a lot of talent and leadership to this team.” Searle will help in rebuilding the MSU-N backcourt. The Skylights also return senior sharpshooter Jena Heggem from last year’s team. The point guard position will be taken over by junior college transfer Becky Sorenson, a 5-6 guard from Salt Lake City, Utah. “Becky has come in and learned our system quickly,” Mouat said. “Her learning curve has had to be extremely fast and I have a ton of confidence in her as our point guard. She shoots the ball well and she is a great player who will be a good leader for our team.” Reserves Mandee Carroll, who saw extensive action last season, Kylee Starr and Amanda Hovey will also see action at guard. Junior Amanda Quartuccio should help the Skylights at both the two and three position. Like Sorenson, Hovey and Quartuccio will be called on to have an immediate impact for MSU-N. Both are seasoned players, and both can shoot the ball well from the outside. Starr is a newcomer who took a few years off from basketball after a stellar high school career in Malta. While still talented in the backcourt, Northern is going through a transitional period there. On the flip side of that, the Skylights return a trio of sensational post players. Michele VanDyke, DeLayne Johnston and Ashley Trulock are all back and, according to Mouat, all three have improved tremendously, making the Skylights very formidable in the paint. VanDyke and Johnston earned All- Conference honors last season, both averaging double figures in points. Johnston was the teams’ leading rebounder. “DeLayne and Michele are a different type of post,” Mouat said. “What they don’t have in size, they make up for in speed, quickness and agility. And Ashley Trulock has improved so much that she is a totally different player. She is so much more consistent. “With Jayla back with those three, we are going to be very tough to defend in the paint on any given night.,” he added. As far as the Skylights’ philosophy is concerned, Mouat still intends on being a team that will get up and down the floor and score points. Northern led the NAIA in free-throw shooting last season, and the Skylights were also a very good defensive team despite their lack of depth. “I think the biggest difference this year is that we have more bodies,” Mouat said. “Our depth will be a very good thing for us this season as it is for any team.” As for opening weekend, Mouat isn’t expecting anything more than two difficult games and a lot of watching his team play as hard as they can. In early season contests like these, learning and improving is what matters most. “Calgary and Regina are both very very good,” Mouat said. “They have both been playing real games for a couple of weeks now. So not only are they two very talented teams, but they are both probably a little farther ahead as far as game speed is concerned. “What I want to see these first two games is just continued improvement,” he added. “You never really feel like your ready for the first game, but we just want to make sure we play hard and at the end of the weekend, know that we improved from where we were when it started.” Saturday’s season-opening game between MSU-N and Calgary will tip off at 6 p.m. The Skylights will take on Regina at 2 p.m. on Sunday. The Frontier Conference season begins on Jan. 4.