BILLINGS – Not a lot of tourists choose to visit Alaska in the middle of winter, but every season it’s dictated the MSU Billings Yellowjacket men and women make this basketball road trip.
It is without question their most interesting GNAC road swing. The trip starts with a two-and-a-half hour flight to Seattle on Wednesday. After a quick layover, there’s a three-and-a-half hour ride to Anchorage.
UA-Anchorage’s women are 20-2 this season, ranked No. 8 in the nation. It was a four-point game between the Seawolves and Lady Jackets with under a minute left Thursday, before the Seawolves held on.
Friday morning, the team boarded a plane from Anchorage to Fairbanks – that’s the shortest flight at just about an hour. If you were to drive it this time of year, you’d find 360 miles of icy roads. The flight goes right over Denali, the tallest mountain in North America at more than 20,000 feet.
The temperature in Fairbanks on touchdown was 23 degrees below zero. The average high in Fairbanks in January is just 17-below.
The team spent Friday afternoon catching up on homework, be it in the airport, hotel lobby or hotel rooms. And here’s a testament to that, something you just don’t see in today’s world of collegiate athletics: Kevin Woodin is in his 14th year of coaching MSUB’s women, and every one of his seniors has graduated. That’s a 100 percent graduation rate through 14 years.
“I try to recruit good students, so it’s not me, it’s all them,” said Woodin. “Another tidbit with this team is all 10 of our players are going to be academic all-conference this year, and I’ve never had that happen for the entire team.”
“He recruits students first, people first,” said senior forward Alisha Breen. “It means a lot to him having somebody who he’s not going to have to hound every day about, ‘Are you doing your homework? Are you getting your stuff turned in?'”
“We really take pride in our schoolwork and the fact that he does have a 100 percent graduation rate,” said senior guard Rylee Kane. “It really makes us proud to be a part of that.”
They take pride in their effort on the court, as well. The Jackets took care of business against Fairbanks Saturday afternoon and are very much on track to make the conference tournament in the first week of March in Anchorage. MSUB sits fifth at 9-5, with the tournament taking the top six squads.
The final day of the trip began at 4 a.m. — a four-hour return flight to Seattle, then a couple more hours from Seattle back to Billings. If you were to fly direct from Billings to Fairbanks, it’s nine solid hours by air. If you drive it, the trip would take roughly 45 hours.
To put that into perspective, it’s closer from Billings to Miami than Billings to Fairbanks.