HELENA — A season ago, the Carroll College women's basketball team took a trip to Butte in the Frontier Conference playoffs.
A loss in that game, the fourth consecutive, left the Saints only to ponder what ifs in the offseason.
A year later, the Saints enter the playoffs on top.They marched to their first Frontier Conference championship since 2004-05, and their first title under coach Rachelle Sayers.
Now, their march through the Frontier Conference postseason begins.
"It’s been quite an amazing journey with this team," Saints coach Rachelle Sayers said. "From the start, we talked a lot about the process. We just really wanted to stay focused on outworking our opponents and being the best teammates we could be."
The Saints earned a bye with their No. 1 seed. It meant a little more than a week off between action and extra rest and preparation for a 7 p.m. home game Saturday.
Carroll kicked back while Lewis-Clark State College, the opponent, made the long trip from Lewiston to Great Falls and upended the Argonauts, 74-69.
When the Warriors take the court on Saturday, they’ll be playing their second game in four nights. Carroll will be playing its first game in a week.
"I think it’s a benefit to be at home," Sayers said. "Sometimes it’s nice to keep playing and stay in that rhythm. Even though they were playing, we were practicing."
There will be a strong sense of familiarity, too. The Saints earned the Frontier Conference title after defeating Lewis-Clark State College just a week ago in Helena. Carroll cut down nets then, and if the Saints can handle the Warriors again, they’ll be one step closer to snipping more nylon.
"They've got a point guard that can get them up and down the floor," Sayers said. "We have to be ready to guard her as soon as she crosses midcourt."
Carroll battled its way to the top of the conference between its veterans, tremendous underclassmen and a knack for defense and rebounding. Even with the losses of two key contributors in Sara Chalich and Cassidy Hashley, the Saints took a step forward in 2017-18.
A big part of that comes from the program's depth.
Hannah Dean is Carroll’s unquestioned stat-stuffer, doing everything well. The junior from Gardiner leads the Saints in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game. Her increased productivity and leadership from a season ago have allowed other Saints to find themselves, too.
Senior Michaela Dowdy has given the Saints a post presence all season long.
Senior guard Bailey Pasta has gracefully shifted over to the two-guard at times this season. The result has been an increased shooting percentage.
Quality play from freshmen point guards have allowed Pasta to also improve her game. True freshmen Jaidyn Lyman and Christine Denny have given invaluable production. Redshirt freshman Danielle Wagner and sophomore Taylor Salonen have come up big in various matchups around the Frontier.
Lewis-Clark State College may have the best freshman on the court Saturday as guard Peyton Souvenir leads the conference in assists per game. She’s been arguably the brightest spot for the Warriors during a down season after the Warriors made a run into the NAIA national championship the prior season.
None of the coaches like seeing another team for the fourth time, but if the Saints can find a positive in the fourth meeting it’s this: Carroll is 3-0 against Lewis-Clark State College this season, winning each game by six or seven points.
And as the Saints tangle with the Warriors, Rocky will visit Western. The highest seeded winner of Saturday’s game will host the lowest seed. For Carroll, that means if they win they'll host a championship game in Helena on Tuesday.
But first, the Saints and the Warriors spar for the fourth time. While the Saints are eager to win again in the postseason, Carroll knows it's dealing with a Lewis-Clark State team that needs to win out to earn an automatic bid to the national tournament.
"It’s just as challenging as the first and probably more so," Sayers said.