Coping with COVID: Bulldogs hit rough stretch

By 
M.P. Regan
Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The University of Montana Western women’s basketball team ran into a couple of brick walls last week.

The first immovable object—the fast-starting Rocky Mountain College squad that sped over the visiting Lady Bulldogs, 80-45, in Billings.

“When you’re down 22 at the end of first quarter it’s hard to come back,” mused UMW Head Coach Lindsey Woolley, whose team found itself mired in a 28-8 hole after just the game’s opening ten minutes.

“Especially against a good team like Rocky,” added Woolley, of the surprise Frontier Conference leaders, who’ve rebounded from a 2020–21 season riddled with contention and controversy and 11 losses across a 12-game schedule to a 16-2 overall record and 5-1 league mark that has them at the top of the Frontier so far this season with University of Providence—and up to no. 15 in the latest NAIA poll.

Did Woolley suspect that early stages of COVID symptoms may have already crept into his squad during its long road trip to Billings, hampering its performance against Rocky and leading to UMW’s most lopsided loss of the season?

“Yes, but that isn’t why we got our butts kicked,” insisted the veteran Bulldog coach, who cited Rocky transfer guard N’Dea Flye as one of the main reasons the Battling Bears mauled his Lady Bulldogs—and so many other teams so far this season.

“She is probably the most athletic kid who has played in our league in the decade I’ve been coaching here,” asserted Woolley of Flye, who competed for two different Division 1 teams before transferring to Rocky for this season.

“She has good size for guard, and is so good on the boards for a guard,” added Woolley of the 5-foot-8-inch Oregon product.

“She triggers a lot of transitions and second chances,” noted Wooley of Flye, whose Battlin’ Bears notched 17 assists to his Western’s half-dozen.

“She allows Khloe Thatcher to play off the ball and do other things,” observed Woolley of Flye’s effect on Rocky junior guard Thatcher, who made the All-Conference second team last year despite Rocky’s rocky season, and the season before, following her Freshman of the Year honor for the 2019–20 campaign.

“And sometimes, she is just like a one-person wrecking ball,” sighed Woolley of Flye, who is leading the league in scoring (22.2 points per game) and rebounding (10.1 rpg) and steals (3.1 per game).

“She is a really good defender. The rest of her teammates are difficult to score on as well. They are playing well together and playing hard. The preseason poll may have motivated them,” said Woolley of the preseason survey of Frontier Coaches that foresaw Rocky finishing second to last in the league this season.

Two days after getting halted in their tracks by Rocky, the Western women ran into another wall--a blast of COVID infections that prevented the team from fielding enough healthy players to qualify to play against Montana Tech in Butte last Saturday.

The 2-0 ‘loss’ to Tech coupled with the big setback against Rocky reset the Lady Bulldogs’ overall record to 12-4, pushing them back to no. 25 in the latest NAIA poll, and back into a tied for next to last place in the Frontier Conference with a 2-4 mark.

“You don’t write yourself off,” said Woolley of his team’s disappointments so far this season.

“We will find out about our team character now. I think it’s pretty high, but we’ll find out,” said Woolley, who saw his flu-ravaged Lady Bulldogs lose to Carroll College by 37 points in January 2017, then recover a short while later to go on a ninegame winning streak—a rally that ultimately helped propel them to the semifinals of the national tournament in March of that year.

“We are in a tough stretch right now, but there are still a lot of games left.”

That stretch could get tougher and UMW’s team character more apparent with perhaps the Western women’s most difficult back-to-back games of the season this week, when the Lady Bulldogs play sixthranked Carroll College (16-4, 4-2) on at 5 p.m. on Thursday in Helena, then welcome no. 22 University of Providence (18-3, 5-1) to Straugh Gymnasium on Saturday for a 2 p.m. showdown.

Saturday—when a 4 p.m. game between the men’s basketball teams of Montana Western and Providence is set to be played after the women’s contest—will also represent Community Appreciation Day at Straugh Gymnasium.

“We are expecting a good crowd,” said University of Montana Western men’s basketball Head Coach Mike Larsen, whose Bulldogs got forced to forfeit their two games last week due to not having enough healthy players to take on Rocky and Montana Tech.

“This is our chance to get back on floor in front of our fans. There are not a lot of other opportunities left this season,” noted Larsen of a 2021–22 season shriveled by COVID cancellations.

“It hit us pretty hard when everybody came back to campus,” said Larsen of the COVID surge that nailed his team.

“I think we should be back this week, able to play, to at least get a squad on the floor,” said Larsen of his 12-9 Dawgs.

“We can say we’ve been dealt some adversity, but we can’t use it as an excuse.”

The Bulldogs also hope to get a game in on Thursday, against Carroll College (18-2, 5-1), who like their female counterparts in Helena, were also ranked sixth in the most recent NAIA poll.

“I think we are all healthy now,” said Larsen, who concedes his team may look a little rusty on Thursday, following more than a week without playing a competitive game, and without even be able to practice much because of COVID.

“We just have to fall back on what we know, remanufacture some team chemistry, and play hard.”

Saturday’s Community Appreciation Day will give fans a chance to cheer hard for the Montana Western teams—and get cheered back at for their support.

“We know we don’t have any success without the community here in Dillon,” said new Montana Western Athletic Director Michael Feuling of the inspiration behind the first Community Appreciation Day on Saturday.

“We just want to say ‘thank you’ for being such good community partners,” said Feuling of a celebration that will be sponsored by big time local sports supporters Big Tyme Sportswear & Design, and include free admission for kids and complimentary rally towels for the first 150 fans through the doors, as well as a halftime game between local third graders.

“We are encouraging people in the community to come and just be loud and proud to cheer us on,” added Feuling.

“And to come so we can let them know how much we appreciate them,” said Feuling, who is also encouraging people to keep checking for any potential postponement or cancellation of Saturday’s UMW games in Straugh Gymnasium due to COVID, which has wreaked havoc on the Frontier Conference’s schedule this month.

“We’re full systems go, as of now,” Feuling advised the Tribune on Tuesday morning.

“But please continue to check the website for the most up-to-date information.

The University of Montana Western athletics website can be found at umwbulldogs.com.

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