HELENA — As the Carroll College women's basketball team gets set to head to Dillon to end its regular season, the Fighting Saints will be celebrating a regular-season Frontier Conference title. In a season where anything could, and seemingly did, happen, head coach Rachelle Sayers noted her leaders are to thank for their work.
"Their willingness to be able to adapt and adjust was something that, I think, is really the reason we're where we're at today," Sayers said. "It started with those players and those upperclassmen and their leadership and their desire to have a successful year, and it trickled down through the program.”
Despite their success, the season was far from simple said Sayers and seniors Dani Wagner and Emma Madsen.
Wagner, a Havre native, noted the cancellation of their final home games to end the season was a bit of a gut punch but also a product of the season they're playing in.
"I know everyone wants to be there, and I'm sure the community as well would have liked to be there for the seniors and just to come out and watch a game," Wagner said. "Every single day is different. It's all unknown, we just have to kind of go with the flow."
Madsen, a Great Falls native, said despite the restrictions, players' families have been nothing but supportive through what can only be described as a crazy season.
"It's been tough. I think my family has done a really good job of being supportive. Even though they're not able to be at the games, they'll text me before the games, 'Good luck,' text me after the games, and so it's just a different way," said Madsen. "I think a lot of families have been really good about being supportive and streaming the games and doing the best they can to be there."
This season was also an introspective one for Sayers, now in her 10th year as the head of the Fighting Saints program. It was also one of the more challenging ones mentally.
"There is a lot of times that I'd go home after going through the ins and outs of being in the gym, then being out of the gym, in and out of quarantine, and wondered how we were going to be able to make this worth it," said Sayers. "That was my main goal, especially for the senior class, that it had to be worth it."
This season has been, on paper, successful for the Saints, but for Sayers this year has brought so much more to the forefront of her mind.
"This is the hardest year I've ever gone through as a head coach. And when you look at, you know from the outside, and you're like, 'You're 17-1, you won a conference title, you have really good players, you get Jamie Pickens transferred in. How could you say that?' And that's all true," said Sayers. "I think, just looking at the last two weeks and trying to figure out how to honor these seniors with the Senior Night and not being able to have fans, not being able to have parents, and then the next thing we get, you know, whamm-o'd, is no game. So, how do you try to be able to express to them what they've meant to you or to this program?"
This season was also likely one of the hardest for Sayers' players as well, which is why Sayers' role of head coach drastically shifted this season and her focus was on making sure this season was something her players wouldn't look back on and regret.
"These kids are in and out of quarantine. Coaching over Zoom. Having them on the Zoom call when we're in practice and trying to keep them engaged and sending them care packages when they're home and writing them notes. I just think that more than ever, our student-athletes needed us -- needed me -- and not as a coach. They needed that support. They needed to know that they were cared about and to know that this just goes way beyond basketball because they were going through a lot," said Sayers. "Like I said, at some point, these kids are going to get to a point -- and you see it everywhere, it's not just in college athletics -- but is it worth it and what they have to go through? So, to be able to create an experience that, we are keeping that first and foremost, this isn't about winning games or getting to the national tournament -- it has to be worth it. That has to be the No. 1 priority of our staff that everything that they're going through, it has to be worth it for them."
Now nearly a year removed from losing the opportunity to compete at the 2020 NAIA national tournament, wondering if they'll have a season, and battling through COVID-19 protocols to ensure they continue to have a season, was it worth it to Sayers?
"For sure, I think, especially for the senior group. I tell these guys a lot and you can ask them, I'm not always the easiest to get along with. Especially the day before the game, I'm intense, I have high expectations, I expect a lot of them. But I tell them this is not what I want from you, it is what I want for you," said Sayers. "I think the tables were turned when we got into this. When those kids lost that national tournament opportunity last year, the tables were turned and it really was what I wanted for them. Knowing that I really needed to be a better mentor, a more externally caring coach to them, because I wanted it so much for them. So, that did make it worth it. That drove me to really dig deep down to be the support that they needed.
"It makes it worth it for me, because they deserve it."