GREAT FALLS — It was a short and sometimes difficult basketball season for the University of Providence women's basketball team, but two players still managed to make program history.
The NAIA announced its all-American teams on Thursday, and for the first time ever, the Argos have a player on the first team: Emilee Maldonado, who also won Frontier Conference player of the year. Maldonado was a third-team all-American in her junior season last year and made the second team as a sophomore.
"It was exciting," Maldonado said about hearing the news. "I didn't expect it."
Maldonado averaged 16.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game this season. She converted 46.1% of her field goal attempts and shot 50.0% from the 3-point line, placing her third in the nation. Her 91.3% from the free throw line was good for fourth in the nation.
Meanwhile, fellow senior Parker Esary received a third-team nod. It was her fourth consecutive all-American distinction, which no Argo had ever done before. Esary was an honorable mention her first two seasons before second-team recognition last year. In the low post, Esary averaged 15.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 1.4 assists per game. She shot 61.5% from the field, good for second in the nation.
"It's crazy to think about it. Honestly, I never really expected to be here," Esary said. "I'm just really proud. I'm really grateful that I had all the teammates that I had get me here."
All in all, not a bad pair of recruits for head coach Bill Himmelberg.
"In the history of our program, we've had a couple that are pretty good in Lindsey Abramson and Erin Legel, but I don't know that there's a better combination than these two right here," he said. "I mean, on stats sheets night in, night out, you can write their stats into the line item, they're going to be there taking care of things. Leading scorer, leading rebounder, leading assists, leading steals. Just leading the conference and the country in a lot of those categories."
The season was challenging for every team, but Providence faced some especially unique circumstances. The Argos didn’t even start playing until January and dealt with seven canceled games. But the team banked on their dynamic duo, and the Argos finished 10-6, with a first-round win in the NAIA national tournament.
In the limited time they saw, Esary and Maldonado made it count.
"I think every single day that we stepped on the court, we were defying odds," Esary said. "I knew a lot of people who didn't have seasons and everything was canceled. So that made that much more important to us."
With Esary dominating down low and Maldonado running the show from point guard, each one's style of play made the other better over the past four years.
"It's been exciting. When I was a freshman me and Parker had big roles to fill. And we did it. We had each other and I think that we complement each other very well," Maldonado said. "We wouldn't have done without each other, honestly. And so just throughout the four years, I think it was cool to see that hard work pay off."
The NAIA elected to forego charging a year of eligibility for the 2020-21 fall and winter athletes, so the duo has another year to come back if they choose.