By Kim Staudinger
Only hours before the Montana State University-Northern Skylights were scheduled to play their first conference game, eight Skylights players walked into a Hill County courtroom Thursday afternoon to find out who their coach would be for that night's game.
The judge's ruling, which came shortly after noon, reinstated Kevin Emerick as head coach of the Skylights. MSU-N Chancellor Alex Capdeville had suspended Emerick because of Emerick's relationship with a student.
"They (the university) said they wanted to do what was best for the team after they suspended him," Skylights player Szudia Bragg said. "I guess bringing him back was the better decision. We're still going to be Skylights. We're still going to play hard and play as a team regardless of the coaching situation."
The Skylights made that point on the basketball court. They defeated Westminster College 67-48. The Skylights' record now sits at 14-2, while Westminster's fell to 12-5.
"We just want to play basketball," sophomore Jenny Balgua said after the game. "We're sick of all the extra baggage that comes with it."
Senior Sarah Gaugler added, "It was really bad timing and we're the ones suffering because of it. We just want to play basketball and win."
Although the Skylights won two games while assistant coach Joan Steffen took over for the Grand Canyon University Tournament in Arizona, the Skylights players feel their feelings were overshadowed by the whole situation with Emerick.
Capdeville suspended Emerick Dec. 12 after receiving two reports stemming from an investigation Capdeville had ordered. One dealt with Emerick's accusations of sexual misconduct against a former assistant coach. The other examined Emerick's relationship with Anna Fabatz, who played with the Skylights through the 2000-2001 season. She is still a student at MSU-N and is Emerick's girlfriend.
In a letter to Emerick, Capdeville said the coach violated the code of ethics of the MSU-N Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics by "maintaining a personal relationship with a student."
Emerick sued to get his job back. The judge reinstated Emerick.
"The players seem to be the ones getting hurt by all this," senior Tamecia Watkins said.
But when the whistle blew marking the start of the game, the Skylights didn't appear to be a team that had been battling with adversity. Northern took an 8-2 lead early, before Westminster went on an 11-0 run to give Westminster a five-point lead. That lead was the only lead the Griffins would have for the game.
"I am really proud of my players," Emerick said after the game. "I have never heard of a basketball team going through what they've gone through this last month to month and a half. To handle it as well as they did is amazing." Emerick also said his 3-week absence made coming back "kind of awkward," but said he is glad to be back coaching at Northern.
Though Steffen did most of the coaching early in the game, Emerick stepped in midway through the first half. The two switched places at different periods in the game, with Steffen usually taking over during timeouts.
The Skylights went on an 11-4 run over nearly seven minutes to take a 31-22 halftime lead.
Five minutes into the second half, Westminster had cut the lead to two. But Balgua and Paula Owens showed sharp shooting from three-point range to spark a 16-2 Skylight run. Owens hit three three-pointers in the span and Balgua added two.
"Jenny was unstoppable," Bragg said.
The run, which was silenced by a Rebekah Steenblik (17 points) three-pointer, put the game out of reach for Westminster with five minutes remaining. The Skylights increased the lead to end with a 67-48 win.
"It was a big win. I give our girls a lot of credit," Emerick said. "We're 14-2, let's move on and keep winning.
"I can't say enough about the job Joan has done in my absence. The girls were ready to play tonight. She did a great job."
Owens led all scorers with 20 points. Balgua added 15 and Nichole Neill 10.
Westminster Jessica Richter 9, Amy Jensen 10, Rachael Patterson 6, Jaclyn Walker 6, Rebekah Steenblik 17.
Northern Miranda Weiser 3, Angee Thomas 2, Jenny Balgua 15, Nichole Neill 10, Amanda Walter 2, Szudia Bragg 8, Sarah Gaugler 7, Paula Owens 20.