By Jason Shoot
After concluding a very successful season in just his first year as head coach, Montana State University-Northern women's basketball coach Kevin Emerick is impressed with how the season played itself out.
Much of the success that carried the Skylights to the Sweet 16 of the NAIA national women's basketball tournament can be attributed to the players, and Emerick is more than willing to share the accolades.
"The kids fought through a lot, and (the national tournament) was validation," Emerick said. "The kids did a great job. We finished second in the league in (Emerick's) first year and had two All-Americans (second-teamer Lana Quintyne and honorable mention Abby Hjorth).
"We're back in the swing of things."
Northern finished its season 26-8, and Emerick feels his team was as talented as any other team in the Frontier Conference, including conference champion Lewis-Clark State.
"I think the difference between us was (Warriors coach Mike Divilbiss) had his system in place for about 14 years," Emerick said. "We only lost to them by seven (71-64 in the conference tournament title game) on their home court, but it may have been different if we played on a neutral court at the end of the year."
Northern's season opened with a loss to Minot State, but the Skylights rebounded by winning 13 of their next 14 contests coming into the Frontier Conference season.
The team opened with a road swing through Westminster and L-C State, and the Skylights found the past success they had was just that history.
Westminster defeated Northern 73-65, but the big blow came against the Warriors, who laid down a 108-71 thumping against the beleaguered Skylights.
"That first road trip through Westminster and L-C was tough," Emerick said. "Mentally, we felt like we were behind the eight ball."
The Skylights' season was hardly over, though, and they had a favorable schedule for the rest of the regular season. Seven of the team's final 12 games were played in Northern Gym, helping the Skylights finish the regular season 10-2 and on a six-game winning streak.
"Before Jan. 18 we only had three home games, and that was tough for us," Emerick said. "We like to play here, and we got ourselves back."
Emerick said his seniors Hjorth, Anna Fabatz, Jackie Rasnick and Kelsy Burgmaier were far more important to the team than just their collective efforts on the court would indicate.
"I think what the seniors did for the younger players and incoming transfers was show what it meant to be a Skylight and what it means to the community," Emerick said. "They showed them how important it is to be a Skylight and be successful."
The trio of Hjorth, Fabatz and Burgmaier received notable attention on the court, but Emerick said Rasnick was kind of lost in the fold and deserved commendation for what she contributed to the team.
"Anna, Abby and Kelsy were leaders, but overlooked was Jackie Rasnick," Emerick said. "She had the most heart in the conference and was the best kid in the locker room and clubhouse.
"She meant a lot to the program; all the seniors did. They helped us rebuild the program and get us back to the national tournament."
Another crucial member of the program who gets overlooked is assistant coach Joan Steffen, who Emerick believes is the top assistant in the league.
"Nobody has better help than I do," Emerick said. "She gets paid for half the time and spends a time and a half. She helps with travel, our budget and helps kids with classes. She does everything a good assistant could do for the program.
"She very easily could be a head coach somewhere else, and we'll be fortunate if we can keep her here."
Emerick said the community's support has been "tremendous" and added, "There's not one day when somebody doesn't step up and help. A lot of places don't have that kind of support.
"It gives the players a sense of responsibility to give something back. We feel pressure to perform because of the crowd and people who have supported us."
Beyond the basketball court, the Skylights were mightily impressive in the classroom. Eight athletes qualified for all-academic honors in the conference, tied for second-most among Frontier schools.
"I'm so proud of those eight kids (Burgmaier, Fabatz, Hjorth, Rasnick, Laura Munson, Paula Owens, Davina Shoemake and Jennifer Young); it means as much as anything they did on the court," Emerick said.
"It speaks to what we're really all about," he continued. "And you can't talk about that without the faculty. They are so patient and understanding. Sometimes it takes a little longer to get the kids caught up, and you just can't say enough about them.
"A lot of kids get their degrees by accident. Kids may go to college because of athletics, but the benefit is they get a degree out of it. It doesn't matter why they're here, we want them to get their degree."
Emerick, with his feet firmly planted in Montana, believes the foundation is set to help this team climb the mountain toward a national championship.
"I'm proud of the way we played and competed at the national tournament," Emerick said. "It shows just how close we are to being able to compete for the national championship."