George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Four teams that went to the NAIA national tournament a year ago. Dominating post players and dangerous, 3-point shooters. Lightning quick guards and deep, talented teams. This is what Frontier Conference women’s basketball fans have to look forward to over the next two months. The race to the Frontier Conference tournament in Butte begins around the state, as well as in Idaho and Utah Thursday night, and, according to Montana State University-Northern head coach Chris Mouat, the league will be extremely deep in 2007. “I really do feel like this is as good a league as we’ve seen in a long time,” Mouat said. “The top teams are just as a good as last year, and the teams that finished at or near the bottom last season have improved tremendously. “There will be no easy nights this season, on the road, or even at home,” he added. Defending conference champion UMWestern was picked by the coaches to repeat this season. The Bulldogs, under veteran head coach Kevin Engellant, went to the national tournament last season, and they return two of the top post players in the league in seniors Becky O’Neil and Kathrine Sunwall. The dominant duo have Western at 15-1 entering conference play, and together they average 30 points and 20 rebounds per game. But what makes Western so dangerous is its inside-out game. While O’Neil and Sunwall are always tough to defend, senior guards Megan Schmitz and Crystal Kain can light it up from the outside. Western, ranked fourth in the nation, is also a very veteran team, which makes the Bulldogs perhaps the most top-heavy team in the league. With Western’s dominant play on the inside, it’s no surprise that Lewis-Clark State, Carroll College and MSU-N were picked behind the bulldogs this season. But all three teams have the post players to stand up to the Bulldogs. LC State was picked to finish second this season after a second-place regular season finish a year ago. The Warriors (14-1) are led by head coach Brian Orr, who like Western, has to All-American type post players returning this season. Seniors Ashley Baker (6-3) and Aundrea Morrison (6-0) combined to average over 35 points and 22 rebounds on an LC State team that played in the NAIA tourney a year ago. And the duo has the Warriors off to a great start in 2006-2007. Baker is averaging nearly 16 points per game, and the tandem is getting help from 5-8 junior guard Jade Fulbright. LC State begins the conference season ranked No. 8 in the latest NAIA poll. And while Western and LC State haven’t surprised anybody with their stellar nonconference play, the fact that the Carroll College Fighting Saints are a perfect 16-0 heading into their conference opener Thursday night has raised some eyebrows around the league. The No. 12-ranked Saints are getting 18 points per game from former Havre High standout Jolene Fuzesy, but it’s their post play that Mouat attributes to the Saints’ fast start. “Carroll is so much better in the paint this season,” he said. “Jolene is Jolene and she can do it all. But I think Carroll is dangerous because of what they can do inside this season. And right now they are playing like the best team in our conference.” The Saints reached the Frontier Conference tournament championship game last season, and went on to the NAIA tournament. And with the play of 6-1 Sophie Forney and 6-2 Amy Brooks, as well as the addition of quick point guard Micheala Schmitz, Carroll might be poised to do even bigger things this year. The Saints were picked to finish third in the league this season with MSU-N right behind them.
The Skylights (12-3) might have the formula to do just what they did last year, which is get to the NAIA tourney. Northern has four good posts led by the league’s fourth-leading scorer DeLayne Johnston. The 5-11 senior from Richey is averaging 16 points and eight rebounds heading into conference play. Hot on Northern’s heels is perhaps the surprise of the league so far this season. Montana Tech (11-2) has played extremely well after finishing near the bottom of the league last year. The Orediggers have already been ranked this season, and they have a win over NCAA Division I Montana State, as well as victories against Point Loma, Calif., and the University of Mary. A big part of second-year Tech coach Brian Housinger’s success is the arrival of former The Master’s College players Angela and Rebecca Gimeno. The sophomore guards are averaging a combined 29 points per game this season, and they compliment 6-0 junior Ashley Shaw nicely. “Montana Tech is probably the most improved team in our league,” Mouat said. “They added some really nice players this season and I think, with the quality wins they already have, and the talent on their roster, you have to put them in the upper group of teams in our league right now.” Making life even more difficult for the league this year will be the continued improvement of Westminster College. The Griffins had a remarkable season last year after winning only a handful of games before head coach JD Gustin arrived. Despite the loss of Frontier Player of the Year and First Team All-American Shalee Fackrell, the Griffins are off to a 12-4 start and they will not be any easy out for anybody this season. After two years of Fackrell eating up the paint, the Griffins are relying more on their guards. Sophomore Elisa Leader and senior Jordan Eckman lead the way while Gustin’s new post players get acclimated to life in the Frontier. While Westminster and Tech are much improved this year, no one will be able to overlook Rocky Mountain College and the University of Great Falls. The Bears (6-10) have made huge strides after a summer of turmoil in which head coach Brian Henderson dismissed several key players. Newcomers Jenna Sawyer and Keri Siewert join Shalynn Conroy and Josie Evans to try and help get the Bears back into the conference mix this season. And despite UGF managing just two wins during nonconference play, the Argos, under new head coach Shawn Chaffin, have the league’s leading scorer and a host of volleyball players to make them dangerous now that conference play is here. Former MSU-N guard Laura Keaster is averaging 20 points per game, and she is scoring from all over the floor. Senior Megan Shwantes is also back for UGF. And now that forward Lesly Richter is done with volleyball, UGF could push to get out of the Frontier cellar. “I just think from top to bottom, our league is loaded this year,” Mouat said. “It is going to be a battle every night. This is going to be a tough year to get wins in our league, but it is going to be very entertaining. The 2007 Frontier Conference season begins Thursday night, and the Frontier Conference tournament is set for Feb. 28- Mar. 3 in Butte.