MISSOULA -- Big Sky Conference basketball is set to start on Saturday with both the Montana men's and women's teams looking to start off on the right foot against Northern Arizona.
And along for the ride are a pair of former Grizzly standouts - Jace Henderson and Jordan Gregory - who are donning new roles on Montana's bench as graduate assistants. Both players, who were fan favorites and stars in their time on the court, are in their first years working new angles with each program.
Henderson ended her collegiate career on a high note last year, having her best season as a Lady Griz. She finished second in team scoring totals with 12 points per game and started all 30 games in which she played. Henderson was the lone senior and became the clear-cut leader of the team as well, a position that would be hard to replace in 2019. But the Lady Griz found a way to keep Henderson around.
“Just her positive energy and having her around at practice every day, she is great for the girls -- somebody that they can relate to more as a friend and on staff as well, but there’s still that relationship there that she has with them after just being teammates a year ago," Lady Griz head coach Shannon Schweyen said. "So, she’s a kid who will be a great coach if that’s what she chooses to do in her future, but she’s just a positive person to be around so we’ve enjoyed having her.”
The Billings native is still finishing up her degree at Montana and decided to spend the year gauging whether or not she wanted to go into coaching as a career. Only nine games into the 2019-20 season, Henderson seems to be taking a liking to the profession.
“I definitely feel like the last couple of months have taught me a lot. I think it’s going to be a career I want to pursue, because it’s just so rewarding," said Henderson. "You get a chance to work with such great individuals and coaches. I feel like my opportunity here has really been a good one, so that tells me a lot about the profession.”
In Henderson's time with the Lady Griz she not only became a team favorite, but a fan favorite as well. In her final home game at Dahlberg Arena the Lady Griz beat Sacramento State 74-67. Henderson finished with a game-high 18 points.
Henderson's route with the Lady Griz is unique in that she didn't even begin her college career on the basketball court. Originally recruited to play volleyball for the Griz, she did just that for one season before opting to pursue basketball instead.
While Henderson is eager to see what the future holds in coaching, she says it can still be hard to be on the sidelines rather than in the game alongside her old teammates.
"Every day when we are really out there competing hard or even on days when I want to come in and bring some energy, it's hard to not be a player anymore," said Henderson. "But it's so fun to be on the other side and see all the ins and outs that go into coaching and different experiences and still getting a chance to watch the girls grow."
While the coaching path may lead Henderson to a different program in the future, she’s focused on one thing that was also a big goal when she was a player in returning the Lady Griz to the dominant program they once were.
“This a program that continually wants to see success. It should be every year that we want that and strive for that," she said. "So, I’m thankful to be a part of that.”
Gregory was away from Montana a little longer than Henderson. After graduating in 2015, Gregory went on to have a four-year pro career overseas. He played one year in Australia before heading to the Netherlands for two seasons and Spain for one more.
However, Montana associate head coach Chris Cobb reached out to Gregory about possibly becoming a graduate assistant with the Griz, and the Pueblo, Colorado, native opted to return to Missoula.
"I still had some juice left in the tank. I could still be playing overseas for a few more years, I was having great years, great seasons," Gregory said. "But like I said, I was searching for something. When I was overseas I just felt like something was missing in my life. I was lacking some stability just being in different countries every year, so coach Cobb came to me with the opportunity. He asked if I’d be interested in it and I’ve always wanted to get back into coaching, so it was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up being with a coaching staff and coach Cobb and coach (Travis DeCuire) who I played for. It was just something I think I would’ve looked back on and regretted if I didn’t do so while I miss basketball and playing, I love still being part of the game and I really love being back in Missoula.”
“That’s a new program for us that’s been important to us these last couple of years," DeCuire added. "One, it’s an opportunity to help a young man get his master’s and move forward academically and also in terms of their career, their growth. With Jordan it’s a little different than some of the others. One, playing professionally for a couple of years is an experience he can share in terms of how difficult that is with a young team that’s growing. I think he’s been incredible in terms of being a resource for these guys to discuss preparation and how we go about our things and, more importantly for me, though, it’s just an opportunity for growth for a young man that’s trying to figure out what he wants to do here in his short future.”
Gregory suited up three seasons for former Griz coach and current Oregon State head man Wayne Tinkle before spending his senior year playing for DeCuire in his first season at the helm of Montana's program. Gregory played rarely in his freshman season in 2011-12 but eventually became a full-time starter as a sophomore as the Grizzlies made their second of two straight NCAA Tournament appearances in 2013. Gregory played alongside fellow Griz greats in Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar those two seasons.
As a junior and senior, Gregory averaged 13.8 and 17 points per game, respectively, and currently ranks 17th in career points for Montana.
"I think it’s really special and it’s really unique to be able to be a part of a program that you played for," Gregory said. "I’m so much more bought in than I would be at another school because I love the University of Montana. I put blood, sweat and tears into the court, and now seeing the next generation and these young guys I just have so much pride in what they do. Whenever I was overseas I would wake up at 2 in the morning and I’d watch them play so now it’s kind of come full circle.”
Gregory said it's been an adjustment working as a graduate assistant as well as being a full-time student. He's currently taking classes to get his master's in public administration. While Montana's level of expectation is the same as it was when he suited up for the Griz, a lot is different this time around, including what he's expected to do.
"Just the time invested," Gregory said with a laugh. "As a player you love going on the road and seeing different cities. Your pregame meals are there and everything is set up for you and you don't even think about it. And now, being on the other side, it's like, 'That's how that got there.' I'm seeing how everything happens from the back end and all the work that it takes to run a successful program.
"It's been a great learning experience and I'm learning a ton both basketball-wise and academically through my master's program, so I'm really thankful."
But his success with Tinkle and DeCuire and being a player who had to earn his minutes is something Gregory has used to help teach Montana's current roster, which features a lot of new and young players beginning their own paths at the Division I level.
"A lot of guys ask me outside of the lines about my experiences and the success we had here. The biggest thing is coming with your hard hat every day and that's difficult to do," Gregory said. "It's hard as an 18-year-old coming in and playing collegiate basketball. A lot of times you're playing against guys who are 22 or 23 and there's just so many things you don't know. So I try to tell guys to be patient but also you have to look inward and see what you need to work on."