Dani Wagner

Danielle Wagner of Carroll College and her teammates celebrate earlier this season as the Saints hit 14 3-pointers in a 99-48 win over Lewis-Clark State at the PE Center in Helena. 

HELENA  In a more normal year, fans in the stands during a Carroll women’s basketball game might notice some of the sights and sounds emanating from the team’s bench during games. In the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, there are no fans in the PE Center stands to see just how energetic and supportive players on the bench are of their teammates.

“I think, especially this year with the COVID year and no fans, it was huge for our team to be able to generate their own energy, to be able to lift each other up, to be each other’s biggest supporters out there,” Saints head coach Rachelle Sayers said. “I think you see that when you watch our games and you watch our bench, you watch how excited these guys get for each other.”

Jaidyn Lyman, Kamden Hilborn and Maddie Geritz have been described by their coaches and teammates as the center in which that bench energy revolves. Cheering for Hilborn when she’s on the court, Lyman often sees that reciprocated when she is on the court from her fellow point guard teammate.

When Hilborn jumped in the passing lane, picked off an in-bounds pass and got a bucket right before the halftime buzzer on Sunday against Montana Western, it was Lyman who was among the first on the court to congratulate her teammate as the Saints headed to the locker room.

“That is so typical of this team and I think it’s one of the reasons why we’ve been able to have such great success,” Sayers said. “Our team is really playing for each other and they’re playing for what happens at the end of the game and what that scoreboard reads versus what stats they have.”

Sitting at 19-2 and ranked as the No. 6th team in the country, Carroll has been on the right side of that scoreboard many times this season. The Saints’ 13-1 record is their best conference mark since at least the 2003-04 season and they will represent the No. 1 seed in the upcoming Frontier Conference Tournament that starts for Carroll on Saturday.

A senior-laden group that has been together for multiple years, the Saints players are friends both on and off the court and that energy on the bench is only one item on a long list of ways teammates show their support.

“I think it says a lot about our entire program,” senior Danielle Wagner said. “Everyone is there for every single person, it’s not about a single individual ever on our team. We support one another whenever good things happen. When bad things happen, we’re there for each other. It’s awesome to see the bench always really engaged and excited for our team when we have success. It just shows it’s not about one person, it’s about this group making it as far as we can go.”

Sayers said maturity and experience has played a large role in that supportive mindset, and while it often takes players some time to adjust to new roles at the collegiate level, there has been a leap forward in that department for this team over the last handful of years.

“You look at this group, they’ve played together a long time, and so I think experience and maturity has definitely enhanced that,” Sayers said. “I don’t think any of them came in and struggled with that, but I would definitely say it has improved over the last two years.”

Without thousands of fans in the stands, Carroll’s vocal nature on the bench is picked up more by the players on the court. Whether it is a big run, a key defensive play, an elite example of ball-handling by Lyman or a 3-pointer by a post player, the Saints’ bench lets its teammates know just how excited and engaged in the game it can be.

For Sayers, that means those players stay ready when their number is called to go into the game, but it also helps the confidence level of those already on the court.

“When players make a mistake or they miss a shot, there’s a tendency to get down on themselves,” Sayers said. “So when their teammates are always bringing them up and encouraging them and helping them get through those rough patches, I think it definitely raises their spirits, they get to the next play a lot quicker and it keeps the bench players engaged.”

While Sayers does not necessarily notice how animated her bench can get during the flow of the game, it sticks out in a big way when she watches film in the day or two following the contest. That is one of the big things she said she looks for and she always comes away impressed with just how engaged those players stay during the course of 40 minutes.

“We obviously don’t have fans [because of COVID], so the energy has to be really great from the bench,” junior Sienna Swannack said. “Our energy on the bench just gives us so much confidence and adrenaline on the court. I think no matter who’s on the bench, whether it’s the starters or the non-starters, everybody just brings the same energy.”

The Saints are entering the postseason as a group well-positioned to make a run at an NAIA National Championship. That run will include playing in foreign situations and environments at neutral site locations that may feature little or no fans in attendance.

In those situations, bottling that energy so often displayed this season up and unleashing at the right time could be a difference-maker for this team. As Carroll climbs the levels of the playoffs, success is only going to get harder to come by, making a confidence-boosting aspect like bench energy all that more important.

“You’re going to miss some shots, you’re going to turn the ball over, you’re going to get beat on defense, and to know that your teammates constantly have your back is huge...I think that’s been a huge key for us,” Sayers said. “Everybody knows how supportive each teammate is and that carries a lot of weight. There’s a big trust involved in that, and when your team trusts each other and they’re playing for each other, it makes a huge difference in how you respond in adverse situations.”

Email Daniel Shepard at daniel.shepard@406mtsports.com or find him on Twitter @IR_DanielS.

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