HELENA — If Carroll’s women’s basketball team did not sign a single recruit for the 2021 class, it would have still been considered a success. That is because the Saints were able to re-recruit four seniors, including two All-Americans, and bring them back for another season with the purple and gold.
Even with all that talent and experience coming back from players like Danielle Wagner and Christine Denny, the Saints have put together a solid freshman group that is expected to play at the varsity level headlined by Addi Ekstrom and Isabelle Erickson.
“Really excited about the freshmen we’ve been able to sign,” Saints head coach Rachelle Sayers said. “I think with the large group of upperclassmen that we do have, it is important to get a good group of freshmen in here that we’re gonna be able to develop and work with. They’re going to learn the ropes under some really good players that have played a lot of minutes. That’s only going to help them when the time comes to be impact players for our team.”
Not knowing how many of her five seniors would be returning, Sayers said she had to recruit in anticipation of losing them all. Even with that extra year of eligibility passed down by the NAIA, Carroll will for sure lose at least four seniors after next season, and potentially as many as six if Kamden Hilborn and Sienna Swannack choose not to take that extra year.
“We were really late recruiting with this class, mainly because we lost the spring and summer recruiting last year,” Sayers said. “Then, once we learned that those seniors were able to come back, it was kind of a balancing act of how do we accommodate that as well as continue to prepare for the future...Our big needs were filling those voids of those seniors.”
That meant focusing on the point guard and small forward positions, but more importantly, players able to stretch the floor with their shooting ability. In Ekstrom and Erickson, Sayers feels like she found that.
As a junior, Ekstrom paced Class AA with 52 made 3-pointers while averaging 14 points per game and showcasing enough versatility to play every position from point guard to power forward. Ekstrom was first-team all-state in both basketball and soccer as a junior, but missed her senior season on the court after suffering a torn ACL in September.
Erickson was recently named the female recipient of the Midland Roundtable Athlete-of-the-Year Award for being one of the top high school athletes in Billings. Her connections to Sayers through the AAU level helped the Saints land a player who can both shoot and rebound. Erickson helped get Billings Central to the Class A state title game this past season and was honored as a first-team all-conference selection.
“I think they all have a lot to offer,” Sayers said of her recruits. “It’s on us to really figure out where they’re gonna be the most productive as a college player for us.”
Versatility like Ekstrom and Erickson, as well as 6-foot forward Millie Brunner from Wenatchee, Washington, provide a cornerstone of what Sayers and the Saints want for their program. On multiple occasions last season, different players filled different roles for Carroll in an attempt to find beneficial matchups.
“We continue to learn as we kinda grow in this offense and with these players year-after-year, we realize with the size and athleticism that we have -- there were times last year when we had five guards in there without a center,” Sayers said. “There were times when we were able to go big and play two fives together. I think to have the options to be able to maximize your strength against your opponent and/or be able to match them is huge for us.”
Getting another year out of this senior class means Sayers will be able to redshirt many of the freshmen in this varsity class that do not drop down to the newly formed junior varsity program.
That gives this current crop of seniors the opportunity to pass along all the knowledge and experience gained over four or five years of playing collegiate basketball. It is what past senior classes were able to do, and now it is up to this class to continue passing that torch.
“The standard has been set by those upperclassmen and there’s no better way to learn than to play with them,” Sayers said. “You’ve heard Dani Wagner talk a lot about the impact Hannah Dean had on her when she was a young player here at Carroll and being able to watch Hannah work and understand what it takes to be at the level you have to be at to be successful here.”
Sayers said there is still potentially one or two players on her radar for the varsity squad, but as things stand right now, that roster features 15 or 16 players.
Carroll is also, for the first time, building a JV program that will be ready to compete this season. That program will accommodate roughly 10 players, expanding the number of opportunities available for players around the state to play for the Saints to about 25.
The JV roster currently stands at eight players, including Dawson Community College transfer and former Helena Capital standout Megan Lindbo.
“I’ve known Megan for a long time,” Sayers said. “Watched her in high school, followed her through Dawson. Really excited for her to be able to come back and continue to play. I think she’ll be able to give us some leadership from a different perspective coming from a different school and coming in as a junior. We don’t traditionally have a lot of junior college players in our program.”
As the book begins to close on the 2021 recruiting class and the season draws closer, Sayers said she already has a limited number of offers out to members of the 2022 class. The focus, however, is on putting a bow on this class and ramping up for what figures to be an exciting season for the Saints.