There is a lot of excitement surrounding the Montana State University-Northern volleyball program right now — and with good reason. After all, the Skylights are off to their best start in six years.
But each and every time Northern steps on the floor, no matter how much success the team enjoys, the Skylights do so with a heavy heart. But they also do so in honor and memory of a special teammate and an even more inspirational person.
This past summer, Skylight volleyball player Shaina Evans was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 20. Evans, who was born in Havre, but grew up in Kalispell, would have been a junior on MSU-N’s volleyball team this fall. The loss was, as expected, emotional and difficult for the Northern volleyball family, the MSU-N campus and the town of Havre. Evans was not just a popular and extremely well-liked student-athlete at Northern, but an amazing person who touched the lives of so many, and her vibrant personality extended well beyond the volleyball court.
“The thing that will always stand out about her was just how much she always put others first, she was just so people oriented,” MSU-N senior setter Jordan Merrill said. “From the first time I met her, I knew she would be the type of best friend you could always count on, she was just always there for people and was everyone’s best friend. The girl had a heart of gold unlike anyone I’ve ever met in my life.”
“Shaina was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known,” senior hitter Brittany Baker added. “Her smile is something that’s with me every day, she just had the biggest smile and she could make everyone around her smile and laugh. She was an amazing person who made everyone feel good.”
Even before people would get to know Evans, who was a standout athlete and volleyball player at Class AA Flathead High in Kalispell, she had an infectious personality and her presence was felt by so many.
“From day one that I met her, she was just such a glorious person, so genuine,” MSU-N junior hitter Sierra Diehl said. “I played a lot against her in high school and she just exuded confidence and positive energy on the court, and the way she was towards everybody, I said to myself, I want to be this girls friend. That’s just how she was with everybody. She just had so much energy inside and out, she was just a glorious person.”
And it’s Evans’ personality and so many other amazing characteristics which have impacted the lives of so many, including her teammates, which has given them the positivity and energy to not only carry on as student-athletes, but to get off to such an amazing start this season.
“She’s with us every single day,” MSU-N second-year head coach Bill Huebsch said. “She’s in our thoughts every day, the girls have done a lot to honor her, they wear her bracelets (Shaina’s Challenge) all the time, some of them never take them off. They where her number on their shoes, we've kept her locker in our locker room as close to the same is it was. She’s with us every single day. And it’s been tough on these kids, and that’s why I’m just so tremendously proud of them for doing what they’ve done this year.
“But while we’ve been able to have some success so far and that’s a credit to these kids, they are a strong group,” he added. “Not a day goes by that you don’t feel like something is missing.”
But it’s Evans’ amazing spirit and how she touched the lives of all the MSU-N players, her love for the game of volleyball and her incredible personality, that not only made her so well-liked and well-respected on MSU-N’s campus, but it’s what drives the Skylights now.
“She’s in my heart and mind every day,” Diehl said. “I know for me, and all of the girls, when I’m having a bad day or things aren’t going well on the court and I get discouraged I think of her. I think of how positive she always was, and how she would always be the one to pick us up, to lift us up. I think of her intensity, her competitiveness and her pure joy of the sport and it helps motivate me. I know she would want us to play that way, upbeat and positive like she always was.”
And Evans’ impact on her teammates isn’t just in the way they are playing volleyball or approaching this season. Her life, her friendships and bonds with so many have had a profound impact on everyone who had the honor of being around her.
“She’s had a huge impact on me as a person, as well as a player,” Baker said. “She was such an amazing person, it would have been impossible for her not to affect my life in so many ways. But this experience has taught me not to put things off. For so many of us, this season will be our last playing competitive volleyball. These games, for us seniors are the last for us, and when it really sank in that she can’t play anymore, we will play for her. We’re all making sure we don’t take anything for granted and we want to make sure she knows we’re playing for her.”
And not only are the Skylights playing for a beloved teammate, but they are playing the best volleyball they’ve played in many years. In so many different ways, that too is because of Evans, because of the emotional leader she was and because of the bond her personality helped create with the current MSU-N team.
“Shaina was always about bringing people together,” Merrill said. “She was that type of person that just made everyone around her feel close to her, she always made everyone feel special. And that’s one of the many aspects of her I’ve taken away from knowing her, from being her friend.
“This team is bonded together very closely, we play with more urgency, we have each other’s back, we are each other’s support system because that’s the type of person Shaina was. That's the way she was for all of us. The stakes are higher this season for us. We want to have success, we want to make this town proud of us, but most importantly, we’re playing for Shaina and we want to make her proud of us.”
And there is no doubt she would be proud of this team. Proud of her teammates, friends, her family and the entire Northern community. Evans is and will be missed by so many, but because of the amazing person she was, because of the countless lives she touched from Havre to Kalispell and all points in between, she will never be forgotten.
Tonight, the Skylights will honor Shaina Evans with a ceremony before their home opener against LC State. MSU-N is retiring Evans’ No. 17, and the volleyball program has set up a memorial scholarship in Evans’ name. People can get information on the scholarship and Shaina’s Challenge at the match tonight, and fans are encouraged to wear pink to the game in her honor. There will also be a moment of silence dedicated to Evans before the match.