BILLINGS — Last season marked a significant breakthrough for the Rocky Mountain College women’s basketball program, no question.
In what was a remarkable turnaround, the Battlin’ Bears went 29-5 overall, 12-3 in the Frontier Conference, won the league’s regular season and tournament championships and made a run to the Round of 8 at the NAIA national tourney.
They also nearly knocked off the Montana Lady Griz in an early November game in Missoula
Along the way, Butler transfer N’Dea Flye established herself as one of the nation’s top players. Flye averaged 20.6 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game.
The show-stopping Flye was named the Frontier’s MVP, defensive player of the year and newcomer of the year, and was also a first-team NAIA All-American. The Bears’ Frontier title was their first since 1988.
In the end, Rocky won 28 more games than it did the season prior — a year marred by COVID-19 chaos and other off-the-court turmoil. But it’s not like the reversal of fortune came completely out of the blue
Case in point: In a five-year stretch under coach Wes Keller from 2017-18 to 2021-22, the Bears won 92 games, winning less than 19 games in a season just once.
“That’s pretty dang good,” Keller told MTN Sports recently. “Yeah, we kind of had our breakout last year but the foundation was laid prior that. I don’t believe what we were able to accomplish would have happened if those values weren’t in place.”
Added Keller: “Last year was great, but now we turn the page and we’re excited about the possibilities of what this team can do.”
This year Rocky is picked to finish third in the Frontier, and is slotted No. 25 in the NAIA preseason coaches poll. Now Flye and fellow senior contributor Shauna Bribiescas are gone, and several different players are going to be relied upon this year.
Of course, returning is reliable guard Kloie Thatcher, one of the top players in the league and a first-team All-Frontier preseason selection. Steady Mackenzie Dethman comes back to anchor the frontcourt.
Flye was obviously a key component to last year’s run. But the cupboard isn’t empty.
“There’s not going to be just one person that’s going to replace the things that N’Dea was capable of doing,” Thatcher said. “It’s going to come down to the team and what some individuals are willing to give.
“It’s about putting the team first before anything, and I do think we have that. It’s girls willing to do what is best for the team. It’s going to be a brand-new team but I still think it’s going to be a team that’s going to work very hard.”
One returner to watch is sophomore guard Gracee Lekvold, the freshman of the year in the Frontier last season and a defensive stalwart.
An intriguing newcomer is Tynesha Parnell, a transfer from Portland Community College. Ky Buell joins the team from Western Colorado University.
And Morgan Baird dropped down to Rocky from Division I Portland State in the Big Sky Conference, where she played the past two seasons.
“I don’t think you replace (Flye),” Keller said. “The mentality of the group we have returning, I definitely think two or three kids can pick up that — I don’t know what it was, we lost combined in two seniors about 30 points a game and 14 rebounds — so I think we have some kids that have been waiting and will step up and help put those numbers back in there for us.
“I just think every single year defense has been at the forefront of what we do. We need to get stops, and not just one or two, we need to get multiple stops throughout the game. And obviously rebounding, N’Dea did a nice job rebounding, but like I said earlier we have some kids that we’ve brought in that I think will definitely pick up the slack.”
Rocky plays its first game Thursday night at home against Division II Montana State Billings, a continuation of the longstanding Rimrock Rivalry series.
MSUB, led by longtime coach Kevin Woodin and a roster chock full of in-state talent, is always a tough matchup.
The Yellowjackets return many elements from last year’s 17-12 team that took eventual Big Sky champion Montana State to double overtime, including post Taryn Shelley, versatile forward Cariann Kunkel and guards Danielle Zahn and Kortney Nelson.
Rocky beat MSUB 73-65 last season, snapping a 21-game losing streak to the Yellowjackets that dated back to 1998.
“I’m excited,” Thatcher said. “The girls that we have are willing to learn, they want to get better, they want to win, and I think if have hard-nosed girls like that in your program you’re bound for success.”