BILLINGS — Scoring from various angles. Diving for loose balls. Battling for rebounds. Running the floor.
Versatility counts, and Cariann Kunkel knows what it takes to win basketball games — and the hearts and minds of her coaches and teammates at Montana State Billings.
Kunkel, a Hamilton High School graduate, signed with MSUB last spring as a transfer from Wenatchee Valley College in Washington and has wasted no time making an impression with her poise and grit.
Those qualities have manifested on the stat sheet. During this strange, pandemic-shortened season, the 5-foot-10 junior forward is averaging 13.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and, perhaps surprisingly, her 17 assists are the most on the team.
And those numbers are a function of her hustle, which is something Kunkel takes seriously.
“I think I always try to work as hard as I can and do the things I can control, like rebounding and how hard I work and doing the little things that count. That brings a fire,” she said.
Kunkel’s journey to NCAA Division II MSUB — and Montana in general — was circuitous.
She grew up on the flatlands of northeast Kansas in the small town of Hiawatha, population 3,000, until her senior year of high school. That’s when her parents’ investments in the car wash industry brought the family to the rigid mountain peaks of Hamilton in the Bitterroot Valley.
Leaving everything behind late in adolescence wasn’t ideal, but Kunkel made the most of it.
“It was really hard moving my senior year, especially being so involved with sports,” Kunkel said. “But I loved Hamilton so much. It was so different. I was used to seeing corn fields and bean fields every day. Now I was looking at mountains and going on hikes.”
Playing for coach Mark Albert at Class A Hamilton, Kunkel eventually was named the Southwestern division’s MVP and began to draw some attention from local college coaches, including MSUB’s Kevin Woodin.
Woodin has made a living for 17 years on recruiting and utilizing homegrown Montana players. But by the time Kunkel emerged, available scholarships within the program were scarce.
That took Kunkel to Wenatchee, but Woodin still kept his eyes on her. When COVID-19 wreaked havoc on in-person recruiting and campus visits, he had to stay true to his evaluator’s instinct when deciding what impact she could have on his team.
“You had to trust the video,” Woodin said of recruiting Kunkel, who had 13 double-doubles at Wenatchee. “And everybody talked so highly of her and her versatility. I didn’t realize how tough she was, though.”
Coming to MSUB, there was at least some familiarity from her senior season in high school, when she got to know current Yellowjacket teammates Shannon Reny of Libby and Danielle Zahn of Florence-Carlton.
Now, chemistry is being built on the court.
Several games into her career in Billings, it’s clear Kunkel is also a strong complement to forwards like Taryn Shelley and Dyauni Boyce, and her perimeter game is also taking shape.
Having been granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA because of the coronavirus, Kunkel has already said she plans to play two more seasons after this. Woodin is thankful for that.
“We’re really fortunate that she joined us this year. She had a good junior college career. Her versatility is just very impressive,” Woodin said. “She can score off the drive but she also can post up, and now we want her to take those 3s when they’re open and she’s starting to knock them down.
“So she’s really a hard matchup for people, and she plays so hard. I’m excited about where her game is going, and on top of that she’s a tremendous person and team-player first.”
Kunkel nearly had her first double-double at MSUB last week in the Yellowjackets’ 69-57 win over cross-town foe Rocky Mountain College. She finished with 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists, and sparked a second-half run with 14 third-quarter points, including three 3-pointers.
In one three-minute stretch, Kunkel scored on a layup, stole the ball, hit a 3, grabbed a defensive rebound, fed teammate Dyauni Boyce with a pretty assist underneath, hit another 3 and scored from an offensive put-back.
It was her best game in an MSUB uniform.
The Yellowjackets have four games remaining in their shortened winter schedule. The first two are against Northwest Nazarene the weekend of Feb. 26-27. The Jackets will travel to NNU for a pair of contests the weekend after that.
“We’re trying to use these games and this time that we have on the court to really set the tone for something special in the future,” Woodin said.
Kunkel’s abilities seem like something special, also.
From Kansas to Montana to Washington and back, Kunkel has made an impact wherever she’s been. She hopes there’s much more to come.
“I’m really happy with the route I took because it led me here and is shaping me to be the basketball player I can become,” she said. “I’m definitely glad I’m here. It’s where I’m supposed to be.”