Lady Griz vs. Cats 13

Montana coach Shannon Schweyen speaks with a referee during a game at Montana State on Feb. 22. Although the Lady Griz lost three key team members to graduation, the fourth-year coach is optimistic about next season.

BOISE, Idaho — Northern Arizona's first win over Montana in eight years did more than end the Lady Griz season on Tuesday.

It left the most celebrated and beloved program in Big Sky Conference women's basketball in a state of shock. The Lady Griz did manage their first  winning record in four years this season, but they fell short of expectations.

When the final buzzer sounded and the Maroon & Silver walked off the floor at CenturyLink Arena, the spotlight shifted to Montana athletic director Kent Haslam.

Montana football coach Bobby Hauck just signed a four-year contract. Montana men's basketball coach Travis DeCuire inked a three-year deal last April. Lady Griz coach Shannon Schweyen was working under a one-year deal this season, and it's unclear how she'll be rewarded for a 17-13 record.

Will she get another one-year deal? Maybe three years? Haslam will meet with Schweyen in the near future, and then we'll all find out.

"I thought we showed really bright spots," the coach said of a 2019-20 campaign that included a win over Big Sky runner-up Idaho and an overtime home heartbreaker with league champion Montana State.

"We've seen what (sophomore starter) Abby Anderson can do. The sky is the limit for her ... We've got Sophie Stiles, Jamie Pickens, Gabi (Harrington) and Madi (Schoening), lots of good kids. I like what we have coming back." 

Regardless, 2020-21 is not going to be easy for Schweyen and her staff. At least not initially.

Senior McKenzie Johnston was a four-year starter at point guard and the most consistent shooter on the team this season. Senior Emma Stockholm led the team in rebounds, and senior Taylor Goligoski led the team in 3-point goals, hitting almost twice as many as the next-most-prolific long-range shooter on the team, Harrington.

Then there's the leadership that Johnston, Stockholm and Goligoski provided.

"They've been really special to me because they've been extremely supportive through some tough times," Schweyen said of the past four years. "Not just starting as a head coach but the injuries we had to key players and friends of theirs.

"They kept me going. Any time something like that happened, I'd get a text from them encouraging me that we're going to get through this. We're going to do this together. Just an incredible group of young ladies to be around."

Montana will be a younger team next season, although three starters return in Stiles, Schoening and Anderson. In addition to those three and three others who saw considerable playing time, the Lady Griz will welcome Schweyen's daughters, sharpshooter Jordyn Schweyen and versatile Shelby Schweyen, who redshirted this season, along with forward Carmen Gfeller.

The cupboard is certainly not bare, and the league will look different next winter with Montana State graduating five key seniors. But the fact remains: The Big Sky is much tougher to win than it used to be, with coaching stalwarts like Montana State's Tricia Binford, Idaho's Jon Newlee, Idaho State's Seton Sobolewksi and upstart Loree Payne, a Havre native, at Northern Arizona.

Coach Schweyen is optimistic about the future.

"Every year you think like how are you ever going to replace these kids," she said of her seniors. "Somebody always seems to step into that role, and when they get their chance, they make the most of it.

"That's kind of what coaching is all about. Every year is a new puzzle. People step into those pieces, and I think we have some great kids coming up to do that."

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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