Don’t look now, no, check that, go ahead and take a peek; in fact, start staring. Because, despite little fanfare, there’s a darn good gig going on with Montana State University’s Billings women’s basketball up the hill there on North 27th Street in their hard-to-pronounce gymnasium.
Tenth-year coach Kevin Woodin’s troops are 21-6, with two regular season home games left, tonight and Saturday, both at 7 p.m. inside Alterowitz Gym. That includes a recent 11-game win streak, sprint kicking themselves atop their Great Northwest Athletic Conference and a NCAA Division II No. 25 national ranking.
Wow, top-25 with 310 lady hoops-playing Division II schools – not too shabby. They’re a perfect 13-0 at home.
Good coaches, and Woodin is certainly one with 150 career college wins coming into this season, want their squads peaking at season’s end. The snowballing hopefully rolls on as the Lady Yellowjackets play in their conference tournament after the regular season, commencing on March 5, and then participation in the D-II West Region playoff tournament, thanks to their exceptional season.
The winner of the eight-team West Region will be one of eight teams that go on to the national tournament in Erie, Pa., in late March. Woodin says only one women’s MSU Billings team has gone on to the Elite Eight event, in 1998-99.
However, Woodin coaches in the present, one game at a time, one tournament at a time. If fact, he can’t tell you where the national championship is to be held: “Back east somewhere, in Pennsylvania, I think.”
So there’s the setup. Local sports fans may ponder why this Woodin group is separating itself from the pack, with a chance to match or surpass the school’s all-time best season, 25-6, with the 1998-99 team.
Well, there’s a sign in the coach’s office, on the back wall, just over his left shoulder when he’s seated: Winners are ordinary people with extraordinary determination.
Take a look at this year’s team picture on the school’s website. There are no high-jumping sleek gazelles, or jitter-bug quick point guards. No large rear-ended wide bodies. Just wholesome-looking women from mostly rural communities around the state – all 15 players, in fact, come from Montana. One gets the impression they’re probably extraordinary in the classroom. They are.
“When we recruit, we first look at players who are going to be academically successful,” Woodin said, noting the team’s GPA for the first semester was 3.61 and for the last six years his teams have been in the academic top 25 in D-II. “So we’ll get perhaps that player who is an inch or two shorter, but has a motor that just never stops running.
“Coaching basketball is important, the Xs and Os, but as coaches we work on building team chemistry, to beat teams by communication, to play hard, and to have a closeness, the coaches with the players and the players with one another. A strong bond is important for me. Teams just don’t have it, you have to really work hard at it, and we do.
“We’ve been lucky. All our players are from Montana and that’s unique. We’ve rallied around that.”
Woodin says he’s fortunate to a degree because most of his players come from good Montana high school programs. They’re used to winning and most come in fundamentally sound, a big head start.
That’s the case with his three seniors, Austin Hanser from Billings Central, Fairfield’s Chelsea Banis and Bobbi Knudsen from up north in Malta. The girls took different routes to get to their final Yellowjacket season, but their varied journeys give more insight into the team’s success this year.
Locals remember the 5-7 Hanser leading Billings Central to a state hoops title her senior year. She was the most valuable player in the Class A final.
Then on to Rocky Mountain College, starting at guard in both her freshman and sophomore seasons. In fact, in her second year with the Lady Bears, she was all-Frontier Conference. That’s as good as it gets.
But Hanser, who also excelled as a goalie with Billings Central’s powerhouse soccer teams, didn’t feel right academically at RMC, which “just wasn’t the right fit for me.” So she transferred to MSU Billings with expectations of keeping the good, well, good.
But she sat, and that wasn’t always easy. She believed she could have started, but that’s the competitor coming out. She stayed team first; it’s ingrained in her, and Coach Woodin’s program stressed the same, so that made it easier.
In the meantime, she earned GNAC all-academic honors her junior year. Now in the final quarter of her senior campaign she’s been starting, right about the time the team is peaking. That’s not coincidence.
“Austin is a fireball, she does the dirty work for us, getting a steal, taking the charge,” Woodin said. “She enjoys getting everyone pumped up, when someone hits a three or takes a charge.”
In a roundabout way, Banis landed at MSU Billings after spending four years at the university’s main campus in Bozeman. The 6-4 center got a full-ride scholarship after a stellar career at Fairfield, where they farm, go to church, play sports and win state titles.
Like Hanser, Banis played well from the start at Montana State, averaging double figures as a Lady Bobcat freshman until she blew her knee out. She medical redshirted a season and came back with a productive sophomore season, but saw diminished playing time her junior year.
In the meantime she graduated in four years, like most responsible students do, and liked MSU-Billings master’s degree program in health administration.
“I really wasn’t thinking about playing basketball here; I just wanted to start my master’s degree,” Banis said. “I thought in Bozeman they really didn’t take the time to get to know you as a person, you were just a player in their program. But here, I saw it was different with Coach Woodin. He cares about his players, he takes the time to get to know you, and that was one reason I decided to come back and play my last year.”
The coach said he was lucky to talk Banis into playing. Lucky is probably too weak a word.
Real lucky, or really, really lucky. A big player with a nice soft shooting touch, she is the team’s second leading scorer and has taken some of the rebounding pressure off junior forwards Janiel Olson and Shepherd’s Kayleen Goggins.
Faith is part of her life, Philippians 4:13 her favorite Bible verse. I can do anything through Him, who gives me strength. Banis hopes to own and operate a home health care business in the future, probably near hometown Fairfield. Seems like she’ll have strong backing.
Five seasons back, Woodin had one of his only sub-.500 seasons. Since then it’s been a rise up – 16, 17 and 18 wins. And now this season.
The elevation started when Knudsen arrived on campus. She cracked into the starting lineup about 17 games into her freshman season and has been there ever since. She has scored at least 17 points a game the last three seasons, and she also leads the team in assists.
She’s good. She’s All-American good at 5 feet 8 inches. One of the best players in the country, says her coach. Each year, Woodin says, Knudsen has stepped up her point guard leadership, it’s vocal now, before it was by example.
She’s a gym rat. A fit, sculptured one at that, with comely features. Teammate Monica Grimsrud remembers the team having a full practice, followed by the MSU Billings volleyball team practicing. And there was Knudsen, says Grimsrud, waiting at the door for the volleyballers to finish, itching to get into the gym and shoot – all by herself into the night.
Why so many good athletes from tiny cold Malta up on the Hi-Line, Knudsen was asked. Her teammate Courtney Henry also hails from Malta, as does Kendall Denham, a future talent, who’s redshirting for the men’s team.
“That’s all we have to do in Malta. Play sports.”
Knudsen, a biology major who’s also all-academic in the conference, plans to go to veterinarian school one day. Woodin thinks she has the goods to play pro ball, perhaps in Europe, if she decides to.
For the seniors, the regular season ends Saturday night against the University of Alaska Anchorage. Senior Night. Maybe some revenge too; Anchorage whupped up on the ‘jackets by 31 in early December.
Take a peek. No, go ahead and stare. Pay the measly $5 and send them off nicely. A fine senior season. Fine college careers. Hardly ordinary.