Alycia Sims, Mekayla Isaak, & Kayleigh Valley (left to right) watch their team from the bench (Mitch Schafer/MTN Sports)

MISSOULA – Despite the loss of three seniors from 2015-16 and the retirement of legendary head coach Robin Selvig, the Montana Lady Grizzlies seemed poised to be a force in the Big Sky Conference yet again. They did return three starters, after all.

Then, during a pre-season practice, Kayleigh Valley, the Big Sky preseason MVP, suffers a torn ACL. Season over.

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Then in Montana’s season opener vs. Great Falls, Alycia Sims, another returning senior starter, suffers a torn ACL. Season over.

Then in the Lady Griz Classic championship game, Mekayla Isaak, Montana’s last remaining healthy starter from a season ago, suffers a broken hand vs. Utah State. Out 4-6 weeks.

An absurd amount of injuries to key players is forcing Shannon Schweyen, the first Lady Grizzlies’ head coach not named Robin Selvig since the late 1970’s, to be more creative with her team. Without the scoring security blanket of upperclassmen Valley, Sims, or Isaak, a surplus of opportunities became available for the army of underclassmen on Montana’s roster.

Take for example, freshmen guards Taylor Goligoski and Madi Schoening, of whom did not expect to play in the roles they are currently. Instead of being a minor piece to the puzzle, the pair have combined to start every game for the Lady Grizzlies, and are two of the team’s top scorers.

“I mean I didn’t expect any of this because a lot of things have been happening obviously,” said Schoening, who literally graduated earlier this year. “But I think we’re doing really well just going with the flow of it. I mean, we can’t be freshmen anymore. We never really got a ‘freshman’ year.”

Schoening’s counterpart agreed: “No one really expected that to happen,” added Goligoski. “We’ve dealt with so much adversity. I don’t think there’s another team in the nation that’s had to deal with as much as us.”

“So, I think that we’re really reacting well to it and doing the best that we can with what we have.”

So maybe 2016 wasn’t exactly the year Montana had imagined. The 3-8 start has the Lady Griz on a path headed towards the program’s first losing season since 1998-99.

But, should Alycia Sims choose to return in 2017, the Lady Grizzlies starting roster would consist of Sims, Valley, Isaak, and Schweyen’s pick from a whole bunch of talented, young players with a whole bunch of experience.

“We’re just trying to look at the big picture of, come March we hope to be playing better basketball and more experienced basketball,” said Schweyen of her team. “And we still remind each other every day that of all the teams in the league, we probably have the most room to grow.”

Montana will finish its 2016 with two road games at Idaho (Dec. 29) and Weber State (Dec. 31).

Its 2017 begins with a home game on Jan. 5 against the Idaho Vandals.