For many, February in Montana means basketball -- the sight of full gymnasiums, the sound of screaming fans and the excitement only crosstown rivalries and tournament time can bring.
With the season in full swing, things look a little different this year for athletes, coaches and fans, though.
While everyone involved may not agree with the right way to approach the coronavirus pandemic, one thing most do agree on is this: It has brought teams closer together. That rings true for Lilly Gopher and the University of Montana Western women's basketball team.
“The pandemic has definitely made us a stronger team and we’re just so grateful we get to play," Gopher said.
Everyone involved is learning a hard lesson: to be adaptable. Just because a game is on the schedule doesn’t mean that game will play out. Key players may be missing as they await testing results. The list of potential downsides goes on and on.
Being able to adapt is something Gopher is no stranger to.
She grew up in Box Elder and had an affinity for basketball at a young age. She moved to Worley, Idaho, however, in the seventh grade and had to learn to adapt to new faces, a new school and a new team. Her stay there was short, but it made a lasting impression. She learned what it’s like to be the new girl in town and how to take the unknown in stride.
From early on, Gopher was hooked on the game of basketball. She started out playing in co-ed tournaments and then frequented many camps in the area thanks to her grandparents. Gopher, being remarkably close to her grandparents, has seen firsthand how COVID-19 has impacted the elders on Montana reservations.
“COVID really impacted everyone all over the world, but on the reservations, they are really trying to contain the spread to our elders," Gopher said. "There are checkpoints and curfews in place on most reservations. It’s a bummer at times, but I’d rather have it this way than having our elders exposed.”
Basketball is the heartbeat that keeps many small towns alive, especially on the reservations. It’s often the only means of entertainment for months, if not all year long.
Gopher knows all too well what basketball means to her town and the role she plays in that. She carries a role model and hero status for future Box Elder hopefuls. Her high school career screams success as she brought home two state championships for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. She averaged more than 16 points per game and compiled a 93-9 record in those two seasons combined.
But when it’s all said and done, Gopher knows basketball is just a game with a bigger meaning.
“Basketball has taught me to make good decisions, to hold myself to a higher standard and to be disciplined in all that I do," she said.
Gopher took that discipline to Montana Western in 2019, where as a true freshman she played in 31 games, scored 68 points on 33.7% shooting, grabbed 41 rebounds and dished out 30 assists. She also shot 70% from the free throw line.
This season, Gopher has played in 15 games and is averaging 6.5 points and 2.5 rebounds per game as Montana Western currently sits second in the Frontier Conference behind Carroll College. The Bulldogs' quarterfinal loss from last season still stings as they set their sights on winning the Frontier this season.
And like most teams, they miss their fans in the stands. COVID has not helped Gopher's biggest fear of being five hours away from her support system when she packed her bags and headed to Dillon. But with the help of her husband and teammates, she’s finding a home away from home.
Through all the changes this year has brought, Gopher is keeping her eye on her main goals: graduating with a degree in kinesiology, helping keep her elders safe and contributing to a successful season for the Bulldogs.