BILLINGS — With the postseason looming, the Rocky Mountain College women's basketball team continues to be engulfed by turbulence.
Less than a week after the university announced in a murky press release that head coach Wes Keller would "resume his duties" following an apparent two-week suspension, a number of players were released from the team for sitting out games in a sign of solidarity during his absence, according to a series of Twitter posts from a sibling of one of the players.
"Today, Kloie and her teammates who stood up for their coach, are no longer a part of the Rocky women's basketball team, a decision made by upper administration at Rocky Mountain College," tweeted Hattie Thatcher, the sister of junior guard Kloie Thatcher, a Butte Central graduate, on Monday evening.
To say I’m disappointed in Rocky Mountain College administration’s leadership (or lack thereof) would be a gross understatement. 1/— Hattie Thatcher (@HattieThatch) February 23, 2021
"What kills me is, the coach was reinstated, and they turn around and penalize the girls," said Chunky Thatcher, Kloie's father. "All we're looking for is an answer.
"(Rocky's administration) made the statement that basically they think these girls had quit the program, which is a lie. They stood up for their coach."
According to Chunky, the dismissed players are barred from using team facilities, attending practices or games or receiving COVID-19 tests. Their scholarships will be honored through the remainder of the semester. At the season's conclusion, Rocky's administration will let the dismissed players "know what their standing is," according to Chunky, who also noted that the school's decision to boot the players from the team was done without giving them a hearing.
Multiple messages left for Keller were not returned.
Rocky president Dr. Bob Wilmouth told MTN Sports his school's approach is to respect all parties.
"We proceed with an abundance of caution out of respect to the players, Coach Keller and everybody involved," Wilmouth said. "Beyond that, we can't comment on personnel matters."
With Keller on administrative leave for nearly two weeks, multiple players "felt sitting out in support of their coach was the only solution," according to Hattie's tweets.
Those players, including Kloie Thatcher are: Shauna Bribiescas, MacKenzie Dethman, Izzy Spruit, Adonica Baca-Martinez, Katelyn Ostrowski and N'Dea Flye.
It is not immediately clear if some or all of these players who sat out games were dismissed from the team.
Keller, in his seventh season leading the Battlin' Bears, had been absent from Rocky's bench since the team forfeited a road doubleheader against Montana Western on Feb. 6-7. Multiple sources confirmed to MTN Sports that some players had taken offense to Keller's coaching style.
In his absence, the Bears lost a pair of games to MSU Billings and canceled a conference doubleheader against Montana Tech while fielding a primarily JV roster.
Then on Thursday, RMC, which never publicly addressed Keller's absence, issued a press release stating that Keller had been reinstated with athletic director Jeff Malby saying in the release that the school "has concluded a comprehensive review of its women's basketball program. ... Head coach Wes Keller will resume his duties, effective immediately."
That about-face was followed by Monday's news of the players reportedly being ousted from the team just days before the first round of the Frontier Conference playoffs.
Hattie's tweets make it clear that Keller was a supportive and caring coach from the time Kloie chose to sign with the Battlin' Bears during a time of unimaginable pain for their family.
"Tragedy had struck our family months prior," Hattie tweeted, referring to the death of her and Kloie's sister, Alex, in Miles City on May 21, 2017. "Yet Wes Keller believed in (Kloie) and saw her potential. Wes Keller was loyal to Kloie and our family in a time of great uncertainty. Wes remains that loyal human being today."
The Battlin' Bears, who concluded the regular season at 1-11 overall and 1-9 in league play, enter the postseason tournament as the No. 6 seed and will face No. 3 Montana Western on the road on Thursday.