Lewis should be named top coach in Region

 

Having had the opportunity to watch a bunch of MCC basketball the last few weeks, one thought kept popping into my head and into conversations around the Centra.

It’s not likely to happen, but Liz Lewis should at least be the Region IX Coach of the Year and should be in the running for the NJCAA National Coach of the Year, too.

What she has done with the Lady Pioneer basketball team this year is simply phenomenal.

I first met Lewis, and assistant coach Janie Rayback, at the Pioneer Scramble on August 24. They were in the midst of a whirlwind that’s continued into February.

The Lady Pioneer basketball team has enjoyed a pretty high level of stability for a majority of its existence. Dennis Lordemann ran the program for 19 years and was replaced by Dwight Gunnare, who coached the Lady Pioneers from 2002 until leaving for Casper College in 2008. Gunnare’s successor was an in-house hire, with Lindsey Woolley stepping in from his assistant coach spot.

Woolley remained as head coach for the Lady Pioneers for four years, leaving for the head coaching spot at Western in the spring of 2012.

Cathy Hanek was then hired to replace Woolley, but she stuck around for just one season, leaving MCC last summer.

Hanek left the Lady Pioneers in a state of confusion, with a bare closet of players for the upcoming season. 

Hanek’s departure also came very late in the year for not only finding recruits, but also finding a new coach that would step in and take over the program.

And then the basketball gods smiled on MCC and Lewis came to Miles City after being an assistant coach at MSU-Northern.

At that first meeting on August 24, Lewis and Rayback seemed a bit overwhelmed, which was to be expected. After getting hired, they had to do a full year’s worth of recruiting and get kids to MCC, which started class the next week. And in the middle of that, they also had to move their own lives.

Somehow, Lewis was able to rattle together a nine-girl roster that had just three returning players. And that roster was closer to eight players when one of the freshmen came into the season injured.

When we chatted later in the fall and I got a look at the team, I came away thinking “If they win five games this year, it’ll be a miracle.” This sentiment was shared by others close to the program.

And then they started winning. They won their first three games by an average margin of 28 points before being humbled by Williston State, 79-32. That loss didn’t slow them down, as they then won their next three games to go to 6-1. 

The Lady Pioneers went into the Christmas break with a 9-6 record and a whole lot of excitement.

January started with an 85-52 loss to Gillette (which was later forfeited by Gillette for using an illegal player). 

At home for the first time in January, the Lady Pioneers hosted Williston State and Region IX leader Western Wyoming. A pair of losses to those teams would have been expected for the Lady Pioneers, but they won both games.

Now it hasn’t all been rosy for the Lady Pioneers. They went through a six-game losing streak that brought them under .500 for the year, but then they went out on Wednesday night and beat Gillette by 10.

Oh, and they’ve been playing the last few weeks without second leading scorer Tess Blaquiere, one of their three returning sophomores.

The Lady Pioneers are currently 13-12 on the year and 4-8 in the North Sub-Region. And remember, they’re doing all this with a ragtag roster that is out-sized every time they step on the court. 

But what the Lady Pioneers do have is an insane level of conditioning (I’m pretty sure they just run for two hours at practice) and more heart than any team in the region.

I’m not saying these girls aren’t good basketball players - they are. But imagine if they had a couple big girls in the post, or even a couple more girls on the bench. Four girls played at least 33 minutes the other night. Give them a few more minutes to catch their breath, and watch out.

The Lady Pioneers have five more games during the regular season and then go into the Region IX Tournament. 

This could have been a waste of a year for the Lady Pioneers, and no one would have blamed Lewis for that, given the circumstances. But they’ve already exceeded all rational expectations, and for that, Lewis deserves as many accolades as possible.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Josh Samuelson is the Sports Editor at the Miles City Star.