MISSOULA – Last season a perfect storm of challenges led to a 7-23 record for the Montana Lady Grizzlies women’s basketball team. But now second-year head coach Shannon Schweyen can’t help but smile, because she’s got everyone back.

All Kayleigh Valley and Alycia Sims could do last year was sit and watch their young Lady Griz teammates struggle. Both tore ACLs early in the season.

But now at Montana’s first official practice, they can do much more. Valley is back on the court, not feeling any effects from her injury. But she is still trying to recapture the form of two years ago, when the Spokane native averaged nearly 22 points per game.

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“It takes a little time to get it back, having that touch around the rim,” said Valley, who was voted preseason Big Sky MVP last season before the injury. “The shots don’t always fall that would have necessarily last year. And so that’s more mental, I think, than my injury itself, but it will all come.”

Sims was cleared to play this summer, and also got married. Now going by Alycia Harris, the center from Stevensville knew all about ACL rehab.

She injured her other knee in high school. In fact, her newest surgery gives her fewer problems now than the lingering pain from her old injury. While Montana starts to make plans, the Lady Griz don’t know exactly how much Harris can offer.

“I want to be able to go out there and play this year. My heart is in it to play this final season,” she said. “But it’s honestly going to come down to whether or not I can get the symptoms under control.”

The youngsters started to put it together late last year. With stars-in-the-making McKenzie Johnston and Taylor Goligoski in the back court, plenty of now experienced depth, and the return of two all-conference level seniors, the Lady Griz could make a giant leap. And they’re well aware of the expectations.

“They’re definitely high. But I wouldn’t really want anything else,” said Valley. “It’s kind of rewarding after how last season went, and being able to be better this year than they were last year.”

“I do think they are putting a little bit of pressure on our shoulders,” admitted Harris. “We have a really tough schedule, especially starting off. I’m sure we’ll take our lumps again this year, but I do think that this team has a great work ethic, and everyone is in it for the right reasons. And I do think that come March we are going to be a team to contend with.”

If Harris can return to play a big role, Schweyen says they could redshirt a few sophomores that played as freshmen because they wouldn’t have enough minutes to go around.

Fans can get their first look at the Lady Griz in their Maroon-versus-Silver scrimmage on Oct. 24.