GREAT FALLS — Few events bring out fans quite like postseason basketball. The Division I men’s and women’s national tournaments are the forefront of that fandom, but NCAA D-II, NAIA and even junior college tournaments cause fans to grab their team apparel while rooting on their favorite team.
Student sections are filled, watch parties are formed and alumni come racing back in support of their alma mater. That’s where Katherine Sunwall finds herself this week.
“Every year I always follow Western to see how they do, ever since I stopped playing, which has been a long time ago,” she laughed.
Sunwall, a Great Falls High graduate and all-American volleyball and basketball player at Montana Western, is one of hundreds of former Bulldogs keeping a watchful eye on Billings over the past week, following the UM Western women’s basketball program on its magical run to the NAIA national semifinals.
“Last year was the first year they had the (national) tournament down in Billings, so I was super excited it was in Montana and we could go down and watch it,” Sunwall said. “They made it to the Sweet 16 last year, now this year they’re doing well. I watched them play in Great Falls (against the University of Providence) and now that we see they’re in the Final Four, of course you pay even more attention to it. You hear about Brianna King, how she’s breaking school records and doing a fabulous job. Lindsay Woolley, their head coach, he’s obviously doing great things down there. I’m really excited for them.”
It’s no surprise that Sunwall knows about King, and even vice versa. For more than a decade Sunwall held the single-game scoring records at Montana Western — 36 points against Montana Tech and Westminster College in 2007 — before King transferred to Dillon from Spokane Falls for this year’s campaign.
The fantastic guard scored 40 points for the Bulldogs in Saturday’s quarterfinal win over Menlo (Calif.), and Sunwall was one of the first to hear about it.
“Someone was texting me earlier about ‘hey, she broke your record.’ I was like ‘You know what, it’s very cool she was able to do it,’ even thought a little part of you was like ‘oh man.’ She is having a great year, and not only has she broken it once, she’s broken it like three times. She had a 40-point game, a 37- and I think another 37-point game, she’s just on a roll. She definitely deserves it. She’s been playing so great.”
You can almost picture the proud smile forming on Sunwall’s face as she mentions King, who still has one year of eligibility left next season and will certainly etch her name next to the all-time greats in Western’s history — Sunwall, Bobbi Suhr, Kathy Eating, Becky O’Neil, Megan Schmitz and many more.
King’s name is already planted alongside those Western legends in the program record books, and it took only four quarters for Sunwall to see why.
“I was able to watch her play when she came to play Providence this year, and that was the only time I was able to watch them, but she is just phenomenal,” said Sunwall. “The way that she just makes everyone around her so much better, it’s very cool that this is her first year at Western and she’s already dominating, breaking those records and stuff. It’s very fun to follow her and that’s what I like. Kevin Engellant got this program down in Dillon started with Bobbi (Suhr) and that group, and Karly (Tait) and the players before us. They kind of put Dillon on the map and now that Lindsay Woolley is there, he’s keeping it there. It’s fun to have that tradition just keep on going.”
Though Monday’s semifinal appearance is the farthest any Western program has advanced, the Bulldog women are certainly no stranger to the national tournament. Sunwall says following this year’s Bulldogs has caused memories of her playing days flooding back.
“Oh yeah. When we were playing down there under Coach (Kevin) Engellant, we went to the national tournament every single year, four years in a row. That was down in Jackson, Tennessee,” she said. “It brings up memories of all the road trips that we went on. We went to Hawaii, we went to Arizona and California. We were able to travel and go to all of these places and Coach Engellant did such a great job of stressing that it’s always fun to win and have a successful season, we always were conference champion or conference tournament champion, which was awesome, but we got to experience a lot of cool places, but we got to do it with our teammates, teammates that you’ll get to know and have lasting friendships with for a long time. What I love about Western is, they always have a lot of Montana girls. There’s a lot of Montana people on that team this year and prior years, so it’s fun to have the hard-working, tough Montana kids there.”
In those four national tournament appearances, Sunwall’s Bulldogs advanced to the round of 16, facing some of the top competition the country could offer. Though she doesn’t have personal experience of taking the court in a national semifinal, she says she can imagine exactly what players will be thinking in the locker room and that nerves are perfectly acceptable.
“I think if you don’t have nerves there’s something wrong with you. You just need to use it in a constructive way. You’re always excited, whether you’re nervous or not, but you have to use it in great ways. In the locker room, I’m sure they’ll be thinking about the other team — how we’re going to stop them, what are we going to do — but also focusing on themselves and what they need to do to win this game,” Sunwall said. “Reaching the Fab Four was always one of our goals when we were playing, and this is the first time Western has ever done it, so it’s going to be fun to see how they perform on this stage. You have teams from Kentucky, Tennessee and all over, but now that this tournament is in the state of Montana, I think it’s awesome they’re representing us. It’s very cool.”
A kindergarten teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes in Great Falls, Sunwall planned to hit the road for Billings after school on Monday, ready to offer her support for Woolley, King and the rest of the Bulldogs. She won’t be alone in that regard, as dozens of alumni are expected in the crowd Monday night when Western meets No. 1 seed Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) at 6 p.m., plus a fan bus for students left Dillon around noon.
The past will meet the present Monday evening in Rimrock Auto Arena, with rooting on the Bulldogs the common goal.
“You get all the alumni, we have some people here in Great Falls and surrounding cities, we’re all so excited that our alma mater is doing so well. You just want to support them, this is your college,” said Sunwall. “It’s not even just that, last year we cheered on MSU-Northern and them, you just want the Frontier Conference to do so well because it’s a great conference with so many competitive teams. Obviously Carroll and University of Providence and all of them. It’s really exciting because it’s something that just doesn’t happen very often. Lewis-Clark State made it, they got second last year, and we were able to watch them. But it’s fun to have a Montana team, a team that’s from Montana go this far. We’re all really excited.”