Havre Daily News sports editor
On Wednesday afternoon, the Montana State University-Northern Skylights will play in the NAIA women's national tournament for the first time in five years.
The Skylight program is one rich in tradition, and over the years expectations by the school, its fans and the community of Havre have been very high.
But after what happened to this Skylight team at the beginning of the 2005-06 season, no one could have expected or anticipated just how far the Skylights would come.
In fact, after a season-ending knee injury to University of Great Falls transfer and former Havre High standout Jayla McPherson, and the Skylights' well documented auto accident on Nov. 14 in western Montana, nobody was even sure whether MSU-N would have a season at all.
“I don't think any of us were sure how we were going to proceed at the time of the accident,” MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat said. “We had already lost Jayla to a knee injury, which was going to be hard enough to overcome.
“And then the accident happened and we were down to eight players,” he added. “At the time, there was a lot of uncertainty.”
The accident left MSU-N without starting wing Chelsie Searle and backup guard Ashlie Griffin, both of whom suffered injuries that sidelined them for the rest of the season. It also left the team in a difficult position both emotionally and physically.
“I just remember the first couple of practices and our first game back after the accident,” MSU-N senior Jaci Heny said. “My body was so tired and I know everybody else felt the same way. We were all just thinking, how are we going to be able to play a full season.”
Through hard work, dedication and an amazing resiliency, as well as the dedication to play for all of their fallen teammates, the Skylights did indeed carry on.
“The resiliency that these kids have shown this season is amazing,” Mouat said. “Through all of the difficulties that they have gone through this year, they just kept bouncing back up.
“And in the process they played great basketball through it all,” he added. “Their attitude and how they all pulled together as a team is something that makes me tremendously proud to be their coach.”
The Skylights regrouped and came back to the court three weeks after the accident. They restarted their season with a nonconference win over Rocky Mountain College in Wolf Point. Then, the Skylights thrashed UGF in their emotional return to the MSU-N Fieldhouse. And five games later, Northern had reeled off seven victories in a row.
But when Frontier Conference play started, the short-handed Skylights found the going a little more difficult. MSU-N was 2-2 in league play when the Skylights were shocked by a Jolene Fuzesy 3-pointer as time expired in Havre in mid-January. The win lifted Carroll College to a victory and sent MSU-N spiraling on a four-game losing streak heading into the second half of the conference season.
“We played well during the winning streak,” Mouat said. “But our league is very tough and so physical. The kids did all they could do to just keep going and we struggled for awhile.”
Sitting at 2-5 with seven games left in their season, the Skylights had every excuse in the world not to bounce back. There would have been no shame in struggling down the stretch. But MSU-N did just the opposite.
With five of its final seven games at home, Northern quickly turned its season around. In consecutive home stands, the Skylights drubbed then No. 6 UM-Western and then No. 8 Lewis-Clark State. They also avenged an early-season loss to Westminster College.
By the time senior night rolled around, MSU-N was back in the NAIA Top 25 and a final win over UGF more than likely cemented the Skylights as at least an at-large team in the NAIA tournament.
“There was a point when we didn't even consider that we had a chance to get into the national tournament,” Mouat said. “We knew we were good enough to get there, but playing our way in was another story.
“I think beating Western at home was a huge turning point for us,” he added. “And we just kept playing better and better from there. We played well enough to get ourselves ranked again and from there everything just fell into place for us.”
And just how did the Skylights manage such a miraculous turnaround?
They did it through rest, determination, and a team chemistry that few teams in the nation have going.
“Every time we had a chance to rest, coach took it,” sophomore forward Michele VanDyke said. “We took a lot of practices off and coach Mouat did everything he could do to make sure that we stayed healthy.”
Because of all the adversity, the Skylights also became a tight-knit group and that bond translated into success on the basketball court.
“That has been the best thing about this season,” sophomore forward Ashley Trulock said. “We have become so close on and off the court. Everybody plays together and when we are playing well it really shows.”
Of course, playing five of their last seven games at home didn't hurt the Skylights' cause either, nor did the fact that they ended the season with four of their five starters making the all-conference team.
“There is no doubt that playing at home down the stretch was huge for us,” Mouat said. “Our fans are the best in the conference. They are one of the many reasons why I wanted to coach here. We have great crowds and we have had tremendous support all season long.”
And on the court, the Skylights played an exciting brand of basketball all season, led by Heny, who finished second in the league in scoring at 20 points per game, and fellow senior Camille Gardner. Together they formed the best backcourt tandem in the league.
The Skylights also got tremendous post play from VanDyke, as well as the emergence of first-team all-conference post player DeLayne Johnston.
But it was Northern's role players like Jena Heggem and Trulock, as well as Neesha Bravard and Mandee Carroll who allowed the Skylights not only to push on this season, but excel in the best conference in all of NAIA women's basketball.
“Everybody from our seniors on down are responsible for how well we have done this year,” Mouat said. “Everybody has contributed to our success in their own way. We have a great group of kids and we have some great players. But what is more important is that they are all great people. And it has been amazing to watch them come together like they have.”
And those great people have taken the Skylights further than anybody ever expected them to go after Nov. 14.
And just how far they can keep going remains to be seen. But what matters most is that the Skylights have already proven a lot of people and maybe even themselves wrong.
They have persevered under tremendous difficulties and they have done it for their injured teammates. All of the Skylight players have honored Searle and Griffin by wearing their numbers on their shoes all season long. They have also played on this season for their head coach and for themselves. How they do this week in Tennessee may be irrelevant no matter how badly they want to win.
“I think we have been proving people wrong all year,” Heggem said. “We aren't going into the tournament thinking that we're just happy to be there. We definitely think we have a chance to do well. But after what we have been through, we also know that basketball is just a game and that is how we have looked at it all season.
“The bonds that we have formed with each other and with our coach and all of the support we have had from the fans and the community,” she added. “That is what we are going to remember about this season. But going to the national tournament is a nice reward, too.”
The Skylights will face Oklahoma Christian University in the opening round of the 2006 NAIA national tournament at 2 p.m. Wednesday in Jackson, Tenn.