Havre Daily News sports editor
Life on the road in the Frontier Conference can be an extremely difficult time for even the best of basketball programs. But playing at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston, Idaho, is a whole other nightmare altogether.
Just ask Montana State University-Northern men's head coach Shawn Huse or Skylights head man Chris Mouat. Both MSU-N teams took No. 24 rankings into Westminster and LC State last weekend and both came away with nothing but bad losses and headaches, as the Lights and Skylights went a combined 0-4 on the road trip.
But before anyone feels too sorry about the teams' woes last weekend, just know they aren't alone. In fact, over the last three seasons the Griffins and Warriors have been nearly impossible to beat on their home floor.
The Westminster men have have a record of 20-1 over the last three years in Frontier games on their home floor. So far this season the Griffins are 2-1, but that loss came at the hands of their closest rival - LC State. The Westminster women also have just one loss at home this season to - who else - LC State. But since the 2002 season, the Griffins are a combined 16-5 on their home floor.
The going gets even tougher when Frontier teams journey to Lewiston. The LC state men are undefeated at home in 2005-06. In fact, the Warriors have rattled off 17 straight wins in conference play on their home floor. The last time they lost a conference game at home was Jan. 16, 2003, when they dropped a 76-72 decision to Carroll College. That loss snapped an 18-game home winning streak for the Warriors.
Like the men, the LC State women have yet to lose a game on their home floor this season, and have been equally unbeatable over the last three years. Since the beginning of the 2003 campaign, the LC State women are a combined 20-1 on their home floor in conference play.
This weekend marks the halfway point of the Frontier Conference season and three of the aforementioned four programs are ranked in the latest NAIA poll. The LC State women (5-0, 17-2) are tied atop the Frontier standings with UM-Western, and are ranked ninth in the nation. The Bulldogs also moved up a notch this week to No. 5. The LC State men are 3-2 in conference play and 15-4 overall. But the Warriors made a huge leap in the poll this week, debuting at No. 18.
The Westminster men slipped out of the Top 25 last week, but after a sweep of then No. 24 MSU-N and the University of Great Falls, the Griffins (3-2, 13-5) are back in at No. 22. The surprise team in the Frontier Conference on the women's side is the Westminster women. After wins over MSU-N and UGF this past weekend, the Griffins (3-2, 10-8) are knocking on the poll's door at an unofficial No. 26, receiving 40 votes this week.
In keeping with the Westminster theme, the school might have the league's top MVP candidates on both teams. Westminster senior Shalee Fackrell is leaving little doubt about who the women's MVP will be and, quite possibly, who the best player in the NAIA is.
Fackrell is averaging 27 points per game, which leads the league by eight points. MSU-N senior guard Jaci Heny is second at 19 points per game. Fackrell is also second in the league in rebounding at 10.3 per game, third in free-throw percentage and third in blocked shots.
The Westminster men also boast two potential player of the year candidates in Jared Ruiz (17.4 ppg) and Nick Booth (16.0 ppg). Both players torched the Lights and Argos last weekend, averaging a combined 48 points over the course of the weekend. Only UM-Western sharpshooter Ty Palmer (18.0 ppg) is scoring more than the Westminster duo.
The UGF men might be off to a 0-6 start in league play this season, but the Argos are happy to boast having the NAIA's top assist man in former Cut Bank star Keithan Gregg. The 6-3 guard is averaging 9.8 assists per game, which leads the nation. He is also second in the conference in steals.
Gregg decided against playing basketball out of high school, instead opting for a tennis scholarship to Eastern Washington University. Gregg was a four-time Montana Class B-C state singles champion in tennis, and fared well for the Eagles, before deciding to give college basketball a try.
The MSU-Northern Lights will be next up for Gregg and the Argos, and both teams are in need of a win when they hook up in Great Falls on Saturday night. Northern (3-3, 14-8) has dropped two straight games after upsetting then No. 2 Carroll College in Havre two weeks ago.
Another key game to watch this week on the men's side is on Saturday night when No. 6 Carroll (5-1, 18-2) visits Billings to take on second-place Rocky Mountain College (4-2, 12-9). Heading into the weekend, the Bears have been the surprise team on the men's side this season, and they trail the first-place Saints by one game. However, the Bears are only holding on to second place by a half game over LC State and Westminster.
The MSU-Northern (2-4, 12-6) women also need a win in Great Falls on Saturday night against the Argos (1-5, 5-16). The Skylights are losers of three straight, and are coming off their worst loss of the season, a 20-point defeat at LC State last Saturday. The two teams have already met this season in a nonconference affair in Havre, with the Skylights handling UGF fairly easily.
The game of the week on the women's side will certainly be on Saturday night when LC State and UM-Western square off in Dillon in a matchup of two of the NAIA's top 10 teams. Both squads sit atop the Frontier standings at 5-0.