MISSOULA — Sophia Stiles made her name as a prep standout at Malta High School before embarking on a five-year career with the Montana Lady Griz, the final three of which were spent as the team's starting point guard.
But after years of basketball in the winter weather, Stiles has a new home, where the success, and sun, are plentiful.
“It was a pretty last-minute decision, like I really wasn't planning on playing another year anywhere," Stiles told MTN Sports. "If I was, it was going to be overseas. But they had reached out through the portal and Florida sounded pretty nice.”
At the conclusion of last year's season, Stiles thought college basketball was in her rear-view mirror.
"Honestly I wasn't planning on sticking around in college, and if I was, I had originally thought I would just stay with the Lady Griz," Stiles explained. "But I had actually told the coaches I was not planning on staying. I was going to maybe try some overseas options. And before that process really got rolling, I heard about the Utah Utes needing a point guard, so I entered the portal, took a visit there, took a visit here and that's really how it worked."
Utah — where former Lady Griz assistant coach and player Jordan Sullivan is now coaching — offered Stiles, and she heard from schools at all levels, but Stiles landed across the country at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida, a mid-major school in the Atlantic Sun Conference that has been to the women's NCAA Tournament every year since 2017, and made the second round last year.
It was a new experience for Stiles, who never played AAU basketball growing up in her town of less than 2,000 people. Her recruitment out of Malta was more word of mouth, so being courted after entering the transfer portal was something she'd never seen.
The small-town Montanan had also never lived outside of the state before, with her hometown of Malta a quick 37-hour car ride to her new home in Fort Myers.
"I was a little nervous because I am just a little Montana girl and when I talk about Montana, I just talk about how nice the people are and how much everyone cares for each other, and so I was really nervous about coming out here," Stiles said. "I was just like, what if the people are mean? What if no one cares? Thankfully I haven't experienced that. Everyone is super nice and really my teammates and my coaches have really just made my transition pretty smooth."
So, Stiles picked the Eagles, saying the school's track record of success under head coach Karl Smesko spoke for itself, and she wanted to be part of that rather than go pro.
"I didn't really want to leave the U.S. It sounds like a really awesome opportunity, and I don't think I'll do it this upcoming year, but I had talked to some past teammates and everyone's had a good experience overseas, but they all say it's not college basketball," Stiles said. "They're like it's just different, so I just felt like I had another opportunity to play one more year so I should just probably take it."
The two-time Montana Gatorade Player of the Year enjoyed her time at UM, a program she played in 103 games at and started in 84 while amassing 943 points, 483 rebounds and 285 assists. But the opportunity to go to a new school was one where she could try something new and get out of her comfort zone, but she looks back on her time at Montana with fondness.
“Lots of ups and downs. Lots of adapting to different situations but overall I wouldn't trade my Lady Griz experience for anything," Stiles said. "I have great friendships and relationships from that school and around the community of Missoula, so I think just those five years were awesome, and I'm excited I got to experience something different this year.
"It's interesting because I had so much fun last year, like it's probably one of my most favorite and memorable seasons as a Lady Griz, but I just feel like I was a little comfortable there. I had been there for so long, I knew all of the other team's rosters. I just was really ready for something different."
And it's been a year to remember for Stiles.
The high-powered Eagles are 26-3 this season, and Stiles has started every game for the them but one. She's averaging 7.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game while shooting 50.3% from the floor and 34.9% from the 3-point range. The Eagles are a team known for shooting 3-pointers at volume, and were profiled by Sports Illustrated earlier this season with a photo of Stiles as the lead image. FGCU has played Stanford and Duke this season and they beat Kentucky.
They're an offensive juggernaut, and are doing it this season with Stiles firmly in the mix.
"Becoming a shooter myself, like I would've never labeled myself as a shooter, but now sometimes I'll hear the other team when I catch the ball yelling shooter and I'm like, 'OK,'" Stiles said with a laugh. "'You just gave me a little bit more confidence, thank you.' That's all been a way different experience.
"This is really everything I expected and honestly more. I had expected to win games, like with this track record, I was like we're going to win games, but to build the relationships and the connections with people down here has just really made it a lot better than I even knew it would be. I've grown a lot as a player, and how I see basketball.”
It’s a final run for Stiles, and one she’s taking in, at every opportunity.
“To remind myself to live in the moment," Stiles said. "To take a second, and realize you only have so many more of these left and to just truly enjoy everything while I'm playing, to play fearlessly. To just take it in and have that reminder for myself that these are your last moments.
"I just felt like you have one year, you should make the most of it."