Editor’s Note: "Marching On" is a series about former Carroll College athletes, where are they now, and the impact the school and Helena community had on them.
HELENA — Emili Woody grew up in rural Eastern Oregon.
Her family had a small television, but sports wasn’t something that could be easily accessed, or watched, for that matter.
“I didn’t have a sense for the different styles of basketball,” Woody said. “Mostly, it was knowing that I had motivation and love for the game. A lot of what I could do was just conditioning and effort.”
But the challenge of finding her identity on the court was just one of the many she overcame throughout her time playing for the Carroll College women’s basketball team.
She not only graduated as the Saints’ all time leading rebounder and second leading scorer in the program’s history, but learned a lot about herself along the way.
It didn’t take long for Woody to pick up a basketball.
She started playing on the playground in Imbler, her tiny hometown situated in the northeast corner of Oregon.
But she loved the small-town feel.
She spent time with her three sisters, worked on farms in the summer and, of course, played as many sports as she could.
“This was just before AAU basketball got started, so I played sports year round,” Woody said. “There was less demand on kids with athletics. It was beneficial because I had to seek out a place to play. It wasn’t readily available.”
By the time she arrived at Imbler High School, she was a success on the floor as a shooting guard.
The Panthers never could get past the first round of the state tournament, but Woody enjoyed her time playing alongside her sister Liz Edmondson, who now lives outside of Cascade.
“She is really physically and mentally tough, so I felt like I had someone pushing me to be the best and elevate my game,” Woody said of Edmondson, who now resides just outside of Cascade, Montana. “What can I say? She is my best friend.”
Changing her game
Woody’s basketball career continued under Saints’ head coach Jim Gross.
She had another offer from NCAA Division II George Fox University but chose Carroll because it was less financially restrictive.
“I wasn’t heavily recruited at all,” Woody said. “Division III schools don’t give athletic scholarships so, fiscally, I needed to take that chance.”
She came off the bench as a true freshman for Carroll, contributing 6.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.
One year later, Woody really learned how much she could really contribute when a new coach Shawn Nelson arrived.
While Woody primarily played point guard or shooting guard up to that point, Nelson knew he was low on forwards.
After watching her play for a little while, he brought up an idea.
“He just laid it out there and said, ‘Listen, there are a lot of great shooters on this team, so I’d like to take a stab and teach you some post moves,’” Woody recalled. “Let’s try to make you more of a small forward.”
It wasn’t long before assistant coach J.D. Solomon took the undersized 5-foot-9 Woody aside and worked on her inside game.
“We played similar positions and similar styles,” Woody said. “I wasn’t going to get down there and do any drop steps, I was already getting blocked enough, but with an offense that flowed very fluidly inside out, my size and tenacious rebounding made it work.”
By her junior season, Woody was averaging a near double-double with 14.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.
Her best game came in the form of 16-points and 17-rebounds against Montana Western as the Saints won the Frontier Conference Tournament.
“She would just fight in the paint and get in there (to get those rebounds),” teammate Jolene Fuzusy-Lloyd said. “She might not have been the tallest but she was definitely one of the strongest.”
One year later, Woody’s scoring and rebound production dipped, but she still earned All-American and all-conference honors through hard work and Nelson’s uptempo, free-flowing style. By the time she graduated, she surpassed everyone as the program’s all-time leading rebounder.
“You look at (the WNBA’s) Elena Delle Donne, who is 6-foot-5 and runs the court like a gazelle. The words point forward or positionless basketball were not created (at that time), but it was something we were doing,” Woody said. “If I felt there was a time to run and bring the ball up, there wasn’t a red light.”
The only thing she regretted was not making it past the second round of the NAIA Tournament.
“I think we all wished we were more successful on the national stage,” Woody said. “The first time, I get it, but, by my senior year, I was just disappointed in how we finished.”
Woody was a success on the court at Carroll.
But off the court, she was still trying to find her identity.
As she neared the end of her college career, she came out as a lesbian.
“I think that if I were there today, I would definitely have to be less complicit in the ways that Carroll is a conservative school and has a Catholic point of view that limits people’s voices and makes it a less safe place for someone like me,” Woody said.
Woody was a practicing Catholic but she said that, for several years, it was important to practice this faith to get a seat at the table to try and drive change.
“That was both from an LGBTQ perspective but also from a female perspective,” Woody said. “I think Carroll has tons of great people who fall on both sides of these human right issues, but you can never really ignore the church’s perspective.”
Woody stayed closeted, keeping her sexual orientation to herself because she said she didn’t feel safe. After she went public, there were mixed feelings from people around her.
“When I was in college, I thought it was my responsibility to keep that quiet and not make people uncomfortable because, if they are uncomfortable, they could negatively impact my life,” Woody said. “You shouldn’t have to know or like someone to try to ensure their safety and opportunity for advancement.
“Now, I have a responsibility to be as honest and transparent as I can with my (experience at Carroll). Not realizing I was gay until later in my college career, in a coward’s way, I always thought it was a blessing.”
Woody has been with her girlfriend Sally for eight years now and her parents are more than accepting of her lifestyle.
“It’s a journey we are all taking, and everyone is continuing to learn,” Woody said.
Woody’s basketball career took her over to Heidelberg, Germany where she played with the KUSG Leimen Young Guns.
She led the league in rebounding and helped lead her team in two successful seasons.
“It was fun. It was like college basketball with room to breathe,” Woody said. “Athletics has a different perspective when you aren’t just going to play it for four or five years. The whole structure is that you can play competitive basketball as long as you want until you decide you don’t want to anymore.”
Woody joked that she just started brushing off her German to keep her busy during the coronavirus pandemic and, thinking back, she relished her time overseas.
“The club was honest, it was fair, it paid for me to take German classes and the coach was great,” she said.
But after some injuries, she knew it was time to come home.
The only question was what the next chapter in her life would be.
Life after basketball
Woody moved back home to Oregon and enrolled at Oregon State.
She got a second bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and started working for Nike. After having a handful of jobs with the company, she is now a footwear engineering position where she works with product development teams to build basketball shoes to the highest level of value for each retail price point.
“We work with factories overseas to optimize the way that we build,” Woody said.
But the basketball hasn’t rolled too far from her. Outside of work, she still gets to play pickup basketball games with her colleagues and she is an assistant girls basketball coach at Catlin Gabel School in Portland.
“It’s been about 10 years since I coached other than just the occasional clinic,” Woody said. “It feels great to be able to give back.”
Throughout her life, Woody has learned who she is.
She grew up a small-town girl.
She is a hard worker.
She is a proud member of the LGBTQ community.
She loves basketball.
And her name is etched into Carroll’s record book because of the style she developed, not by watching her idols, but by finding her own way to success.
“Seeing players put it all out on the floor is just a beautiful thing to me,” Woody said. “That’s something you don’t see sometimes in professional sports, but that’s my game.”
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