By Kim Staudinger
For the Montana State University-Northern Lights and Skylights, now is the time of year where things really start to matter.
Conference play begins Thursday night for both teams, facing Westminster College from Salt Lake City with the women's game starting at 6 p.m. and the men to follow at 8. Conference action continues Saturday when Lewis-Clark State College comes to town.
For the Lights, who start the weekend with an 11-5 record, Westminster and Lewis-Clark are two of the toughest teams to open conference play with. Still, Lights head coach Brian Harrell said his team is excited and ready to play.
"We have to play them all sooner or later," he said. "I think we are ready at this point in the season. So we will see how we stack up. There can be no nights off. We've got to play hard every game."
Harrell said the Frontier Conference will be very difficult, as five teams could easily take the championship. Harrell mentioned Westminster, Lewis-Clark, Carroll and Western as teams to look for at the top along with Northern.
"Five teams could possibly win the conference this season and we are one of them," he said. "There will be no easy games this time of year."
Due to the Olympics, which forced Westminster out of its gym early, the Griffins have already played two conference games, against Carroll and Rocky Mountain. Westminster defeated Rocky 63-61, but fell to Carroll 90-88 in three overtime periods.
Brad Wilden, a 6-foot-5 senior forward, is one of the key weapons the Griffins have. Wilden averages nearly 22 points per game and can score in many different ways. Harrell said Wilden can shoot the three-pointers, but will get most of his points by taking the ball and driving to the basket.
With the mixture of shots Wilden takes, the Lights defense plans to mix strategies up, but, more importantly, the players guarding Wilden will need to stay out of foul trouble.
Westminster also added a few Division I transfers to its roster this year, which adds experience as well as depth.
"They are very tough," Harrell said, noting he expects a balanced attack from the Griffins offensively. "They really execute well offensively. They can go inside. They have good shooters and good size. They are very well coached."
After Thursday's game, the Lights will face the Warriors (11-5) from Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston, Idaho. Harrell said Lewis-Clark is big and athletic and also has a lot of transfers, some coming from Division I schools.
With the new-look Warriors on the floor, Harrell said, he feels they are probably the most athletic and talented team in the league.
Another twist to the Lewis-Clark game is the return of former Lights coach Tim Walker. Walker left his position at Northern after last season and is currently an assistant for Lewis-Clark.
Lewis-Clark most recently defeated Walla Walla College 121-93. Jason Brazier led seven scorers in double figures with 27 points. Josh Wilson (18), Brian Meneely (16), James Idoko (15), Sta'Fon Lawson (12), Beau Barney (11) and Chris Allen (11) followed.
After a strong practice Monday, Harrell said his team is getting back into shape after having 10 days off for Christmas break.
"Each weekend now the games get bigger and bigger," Harrell said. "Everybody's ready. They realize the importance of these games. These are the games that count. We are anxious to get started with these."
Season statistics for the Lights show Northern averaging 55.8 percent shooting on two-point baskets, 41.8 percent on three-point shots, and 73.6 percent from the free-throw line. The Lights are also averaging 16 assists and nearly eight steals per game. Northern is outscoring its opponent on average 92-79 and pulls down just over 36 rebounds per game.
Leading scorers for the Lights are E.J. Little with 16.5, Jermaine Walton with 15.4, Jeff Graham and K.C. Moultrie with 13.1 apiece, and Josh Hays with 12.5.
Said Harrell on the balanced scoring from his team: "I think that's the mark of a good team. One night it might be one guy and the next it might be somebody else."
The Skylights will face the same two teams Thursday and Saturday nights. The Skylights returned from their trip to Arizona Tuesday night and practiced upon arrival in Havre.
The start of conference play will not be easy for the Skylights as they may be without two key players. Interim head coach Joan Steffen said today that Megan Woolf has left the program for personal reasons after the first semester and has returned to Utah. Miranda Weiser will be a question mark for this weekend after having her knee scoped before the break. Weiser is due to go back to the doctor on Monday. Steffen said Weiser practiced Tuesday and was a little sore, but will practice again today and, depending on how she feels, may play some this weekend.
With those losses, the Skylights are down to nine players and have only had five or six practices since Dec. 12 with every player present, due to finals week and the break. Still, the Skylights are coming off a strong weekend in Arizona and are preparing for conference play as best they can.
"It's going to be tough," Steffen said.
Last year the Skylights started their season 0-2 in conference play, but battled back to a 10-4 record. Steffen said the nice thing about this weekend is they will be playing at home. With distractions and turmoil due to the recent suspension of head coach Kevin Emerick, she is hoping the girls, who she says are confused about the ongoings, will be able to adjust one more time.
Emerick was suspended on Dec. 12. Steffen is taking his place pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by Emerick in District Court in Havre. Emerick is seeking to be allowed to finish the season as head coach of the Skylights.
Westminster began conference play before the Christmas break and defeated Rocky. Steffen said the key to the Westminster game will be controlling the tempo and running the type of game the Skylights usually play. Northern played Westminster in Great Falls at a preseason tournament, so the Skylights know what to expect.
"They don't give up and they fight until the end," Steffen said. She also said the Skylights had a tough time in the game at Great Falls pressing junior guard Amy Jensen.
The Westminster women are led by sophomore forward Rebekah Steenblik at 5 foot 10 and seniors Misty Griffiths, Lesley Shaw, Ashlee Grange and Jaclyn Walker. Other players for Wesminster are sophomores Jessica Richter and Rachael Patterson, and freshmen Megan Terry, Shelly Price, Lindsey Kelly and Jennifer Zaugg.
The Lewis-Clark women, under new head coach Brian Orr, are led by senior guard Brianne Kottwitz. Shannon Russel and Katarina Gabaniova are the two other seniors on the roster and have been playing well of late. Jessica Foot, a sophomore, is another key for the Skylights to defend. Steffen said the Skylights will have to control her three-point shooting.
Other players for Lewis-Clark include juniors Kyla Harris and Shanta Coleman, and sophomores Vanessa Shelton, Alicia Hazlett and Amy Flaig. Freshmen for the Warriors are Joselyn Mays, Kendra West and Leah McCauley.
Top picks for the women in the Frontier Conference are Western, Carroll, Lewis-Clark and Northern. But, Steffen said, no team will be easy.
"It will be very important to take care of your home floor," she said. "Every night you have to play hard, there is no game to relax."