HELENA — Ready or not, the Frontier Conference basketball season is here.
The season begins for the Carroll College Saints in earnest this weekend, though some teams started earlier this week. The Saints women’s team is off to Havre for a date with the No. 21-ranked MSU-Northern Skylights on Saturday and then a second game against the University of Providence on Sunday. A scheduling conflict in Great Falls moved the contest to a rare Sunday affair.
“The kids are excited,” Saints coach Rachelle Sayers said. “Are we ready? I guess we’ll know this weekend.”
The Saints were certainly ready through their non-conference portion. Unranked Carroll made a case for the Top 25 when new rankings are released next week. Carroll built a 4-1 record, including a win over No. 7 Westmont College, defeating the Warriors on their home court. Carroll opened up the season with a narrow exhibition loss to Montana, losing 55-48. After that, the Saints had another exhibition game days later, losing to a strong and deep University of Utah, 70-46.
Just three nights later, Carroll notched a signature win when it defeated Boise State 62-61 at Taco Bell Arena.
Then came Carroll’s California road swing, splitting games against the aforementioned Westmont and falling to No. 17 The Masters.
All this leads into a two-game foray into the Frontier. Carroll faces Northern and Providence – a sampling of the conference – and then goes back into nonconference through the holiday season. After Sunday’s affair, the Saints won’t play a Frontier game until Jan. 4.
“It’s such a weird deal to go into conference and then go back to preseason,” Sayers said. “I don’t particularly like the early start to conference.”
Again, ready or not, and like it or not, it’s here.
Sayers has noticed the energy level rise in recent practices, an acknowledgement that her team understands the important of conference play. It’s also an understanding of the Saints’ past two preseasons.
“We’ve had really good preseasons and really good, quality wins and then it seems like in February we aren’t playing as strong as were in November,” Sayers said.
Sayers said a remedy is focusing on team goals each time out. The Saints will look to outwork, outrebound and play at a higher energy level than their opponents each night out. Focusing inward, Sayers said, will help the Saints translate preseason success into the conference season.
And if the Saints can keep their success rolling, it will alleviate stress later in the season, too. Playing on the bubble of making the national tournament impacts players.
The Saints had a nice Thanksgiving break, giving them time off and 12 days since their last game. They were on the road the majority of their preseason, meaning the Saints had extra benefit of coming back to Helena, or returning to their homes for the holiday.
“They did a great job of getting away and getting their bodies and mind ready to come back,” Sayers said.
It all starts with Northern on Saturday.
The Skylights will be a significantly different team this season. MSU-Northern graduated two-time All-American guard Natalee Faupel, who was a thorn in the Saints’ side the during her Skylights career. The Skylights also lost Molly Kreycik and Sierra Richards, who were two Skylights' leaders in assists and rebounds from a season ago. Three seniors that powered the Skylights to a 24-9 record, finishing second in the Frontier, moved on.
Even if the Skylights look like they could take a step back on paper, Sayers said the film on Northern left her “extremely impressed.”
“I think Chris (Mouat) has always done an amazing job,” Sayers said. “He’s very, very disciplined. He runs a disciplined program. The kids respond well to that.”
Northern started the season 5-3. The Skylights will enter conference play after competing in the Jackson Rotary Classic, a tournament pitting a who’s who of top NAIA teams. The Skylights went 0-2 at the tournament, falling to No. 6 Campbellsville 68-59, and then losing in overtime to Martin Methodist, 74-69.
So far, the Skylights are led by Jacy Thompson, who’s upped her scoring average to 14 points per game from an honorable-mention all-conference campaign a season ago. The Skylights are getting double-digit scoring efforts from four players, including Thompson. Joining her are Peyton Filius (13.3 ppg), Shiloh McCormick (12.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg) and Brandy Lambourne (10 ppg).
The Saints counter with junior forward Hannah Dean and senior guard Bailey Pasta, who are leading the Saints this season. The duo was honorable-mention all-conference selections a season ago.
Dean is averaging 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and leading the Saints with 12 total assists. The Gardiner grad's level of play has risen to their competition and she has put up high-quality stat lines against D-I competition in the preseason.
Pasta enters the game averaging 9.8 points per night, giving the Saints scoring boosts and tenacity.
Carroll’s rotation is deep, giving many players chances to impact games, though a few faces will be missing. Cassidy Hashley, an honorable mention All-American a season ago, is taking a medical redshirt. Sara Chalich, a strong defender and 3-point shooter, tore her ACL in a practice weeks ago and is out for the season.
Saints guard Danielle Wagner gets a chance to play in her hometown this weekend, too. The guard from Havre redshirted last season and has come off the bench.
After Saturday’s battle in Havre, the Saints head to Providence (renamed from the University of Great Falls). Great Falls started the season 9-1, with a win over No. 22-ranked Cumberland. Providence picked up the win over Cumberland at the Jackson Rotary classic after falling 72-44 to No. 3-ranked Freed-Hardeman.
The Argonauts return second-team all-conference guard Stephanie McDonagh, who is off to a blistering start, averaging 18.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.
“They added some depth to their team,” Sayers said. “They have definitely improved their post game.”
Bill Himmelberg’s squad is playing strong defense, giving up the 10th fewest points per game in the NAIA at 55, and scoring at a reasonable clip.
Carroll will get to see what it’s made of on the road.
“We’ve had some good practices and very competitive practices,” Sayers said. “Kids seem like they’re in good spirits.”