Team is prepared to forfeit the season if Emerick remains coach
By Tim Eberly
The Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team decided Monday to take control of its own fate.
After playing through a coaching suspension and court battles most of the season, the Skylights issued a statement at 4 p.m. Monday announcing their refusal to play for head coach Kevin Emerick and assistant coach Joan Steffen. The one-page letter, which was drafted Sunday and Monday by the nine members of the team, was given to Emerick at the scheduled start of their afternoon practice and was signed by every member of the team, players said.
The letter cited verbal abuse as the reason for their decision.
"He's been increasingly verbally abusive," said Amanda Walter, a senior transfer from the University of Great Falls. "He's been like that all season. But he was worse this weekend."
Said Emerick: "I'm not coaching them any different today than I have all year."
The Skylights have lost five of their last seven games since state District Judge Marc Buyske reinstated Emerick after a early-season suspension by MSU-N Chancellor Alex Capdeville, including two games last week. Lewis-Clark State College defeated the Skylights, 74-59, on Thursday, and MSU-N lost Saturday evening, 67-62, to Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
Several players described Emerick's behavior during the four-day trip as the breaking point that spurred their decision.
When the players returned from their road trip Sunday morning, they met that afternoon at junior forward Angee Thomas' residence. At first, they were only going to skip practice, senior center Sarah Gaugler said, but chose Monday to boycott playing under Emerick altogether.
"It got kind of out of control," Skylights sophomore point guard Jenny Balgua said today. "All we know is that we're not going to play for him and if that means sacrificing the rest of the season, then that's what we have to do."
According to the Skylights, Emerick's verbal abuse and derogatory comments have been directed not just at the team but at individual players as well.
Gaugler said Emerick called her "a joke."
Captain Paula Owens, who also played for Emerick last season, said, "He told me that I'm 24 years old and I should act like I know how to play. He said we're the joke of the conference." Owens also said Emerick told the team they "play like high school girls."
Emerick attributed the players' reaction to their recent losing skid and poor play. "They are looking for someone to blame for losing five out of seven games," he said.
Walter also said Emerick called the team "worthless" this weekend and that he threatened to forfeit the season because of their play. Emerick also told the Skylights he would institute two-hour practices starting at 5:30 a.m., in addition to their normal two-hour afternoon practice, Walter said.
Emerick told freshman forward Nichole Neill that she would "never get off the bench," Owens said.
"He thinks he owns this community," Owens said. "He thinks he's bigger than anybody else here."
Walter said Emerick, whose contract expires June 18 and will not be renewed, has told them several times that he is untouchable. "He was like, They can't do anything to me.' "
The players decided not to play for Steffen, who served as the Skylights' interim head coach for three weeks when Emerick was suspended in December, because of her dedication to Emerick, several players said.
"She's too attached to him to make her own decisions," Gaugler said. "When he was suspended and she took over the team, he was basically still running the team through her."
Capdeville suspended Emerick with pay on Dec. 12 for maintaining a personal relationship with a student, Anna Fabatz, a former Skylight who played for Emerick during the 2000-01 season. After Emerick sued to get his job back, Buyske reinstated Emerick on Jan. 3. In response, attorneys for MSU asked the Montana Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction in the case and remove Emerick from his position, a request that was denied last Tuesday.
Capdeville flew to Washington, D.C., on Monday afternoon with several other high-level MSU administrators to meet with members of Congress and could not be reached for comment. He is returning to Havre on Wednesday. Cadeville's secretary, Debbie Ritz, briefed Capdeville on the situation Monday afternoon after the players dropped off a copy of their statement at his office, Ritz said.
Athletic director Ted Spatkowski, who is visiting his mother in New Britain, Conn., said today, "There's nothing we can do," said Spatkowski, who had intended to return to MSU-N Thursday but booked himself as a standby passenger for a Wednesday morning flight when he was notified of the players' action. "We're hoping they'll finish the season. But if they choose not to, that's their call."
Spatkowski also said the players' scholarships would not likely be revoked. "I have empathy for them for putting up with all they did for the year," he said. "I feel sorry for them. I really do."
In Oct. 11, Emerick sent a mass e-mail to about 100 MSU-N staff and faculty members, accusing a former Skylights recruiter of having inappropriate sexual contact with Fabatz while he recruited her and during her freshman season. Emerick said he and Fabatz began dating shortly after her senior season.
Emerick has said he was given permission by Capdeville and Spatkowski to pursue a relationship with Fabatz and that action was taken against him only after he publicly accused the administrators of failing to investigate her complaint. The school officials deny that claim.
Walter said the Skylights began considering taking action after the Supreme Court's ruling, but the events of this weekend forced them to make a move. "It might be too late," she said. "We probably should have done it earlier."
After the players met with Emerick in a conference room in MSU-N's athletic department, Emerick refused to accept the petition declaring the Skylights' refusal to play for him. The team did not practice Monday; all but one player went home after their meeting with Emerick. Redshirt freshman Ellie Tuck, who joined the team this semester, went to the gymnasium and shot baskets while Emerick rebounded for her, Balgua said.
At 4 p.m. today, the Skylights are planning to practice without Emerick. However, the coach is also planning on coaching the players who attend. "He told me and he told the team that he is having practice at 4 o'clock," Spatkowski said. "He's planning on being there."
If Emerick does attend practice, the Skylights do not have a specific plan of action.
"If he comes on the court, we can play around him or stop (playing) until he leaves," Owens said.
Emerick, meanwhile, may attempt to canvass the MSU-N campus to find new players. "We're going to try to get a team on the floor for Saturday," he said. "We are trying to put together a team to play."
The Skylights are scheduled to travel to the University of Great Falls on Saturday.