MISSOULA – The Montana Lady Grizzlies brought back nearly everyone for this season, but one of the biggest reasons for their run to the top of the Big Sky Conference is someone new.

Montana head coach Shannon Schweyen feared some big school would hear what was happening in Malta last year and take a gem out of the Treasure State, but she really only had to worry about the Bobcats.

“It was always the state of Montana. I didn’t want to leave the state,” said former Malta M-Ette Sophia Stiles. “I was really considering Bozeman. It was right down to the wire.”

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In the end, the Stiles family and the long-running pipeline of prospects traveling from Malta to Missoula convinced the guard to pick the Lady Griz. The two programs have had a connection for decades, and Stiles knows her hometown is paying attention each time she takes the floor.

“It’s actually crazy. I get text messages after every game, Facebook messages. Everyone is always streaming the games online,” she said.

What they’re watching is the emergence of a new star in maroon and silver. Malta fans may have known what Stiles could bring to the court, but she came to Missoula as a bit of a mystery.

“The only time we got to see her was with her team from Malta,” said Schweyan. “She didn’t get out and play a lot of AAU basketball or travel around. There were a lot of facets of her game we didn’t know about.”

Stiles immediately showed she could handle the side of the court where freshman usually struggle. Her quickness and instincts made her a force on defense from Day 1.

But the high school star took a while to get comfortable in an offense not built around her. It took 15 games for Stiles to reach double figures in scoring.

“I think I’ve kind of been hiding a little bit on offense,” admitted Stiles. “I think confidence is a big thing for me. At the beginning of the year I just kind of struggled offensively with my confidence.”

But last Thursday at Southern Utah, a confident and aggressive Stiles came off the bench to score 26 points.

“We weren’t doing very well, so I just tried to bring some energy,” she said. “And my shots were just going in, so it was fun.”

“She’s been a very coachable kid, and certainly one of our most competitive and hardest workers,” praised Schweyen, “which that in itself has helped Sophia work her way into the lineup.”

That performance at Southern Utah earned Stiles her first career start at Northern Arizona on Saturday.

And fans across Montana, especially in Malta, have plenty of reasons to watch the next four years.

Stiles will try to help the Lady Griz avenge one of their two Big Sky losses on Thursday night, when Montana hosts Northern Colorado at 7 p.m. Then they’ll take on North Dakota at 2 p.m. Saturday.

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