The Last of the Bignells—for now

Wednesday, March 25, 2020
The Last of the Bignells—for now

Reversal of fortunes University of Montana Western legacy player Savanna Bignell drives for a reverse layup during a game against Carroll College this past season. The fifth Bignell to play women’s basketball at UMW, Bignell helped lead the program from the bottom of the league to the top of the nation during her time in Dillon. M.P. Regan photo

University of Montana Western senior Savanna Bignell saw her fine college basketball career unexpectedly end early earlier this month when the NAIA’s decision to cancel its annual women’s basketball championship tourney scheduled for March 18–24 in Billings.

Which was unfortunate for Savanna Bignell, of course. But maybe less unfortunate for her than the abrupt end seemed for most other seniors.

Because while getting the chance to compete at one last national tourney would have been a sweet way to close out her college playing career, Savanna Bignell had already proven just about everything that’s possible for a player to prove.

The 5-foot-6-inch Avon native won a State AA title with Helena Capital in 2015. She won an NAIA national title last season with UMW. She returned this past season to provide leadership and whatever else was needed to a Bulldog team that had lost four starters and six players to graduation.

She earned second-team All-Frontier Conference honors for her 2019–20 campaign when she led the young Lady Dawgs in scoring and by example, helping compel a team picked to finish next-to-last in the league to within a single point of the regular-season Frontier Conference title, along with a perpetual spot in the national rankings and the bracket for this year’s cancelled national tourney.

“Savanna has been a tremendous help. She knows so much about the game and she expects the best out of you,” said Brynley Fitzgerald, the former BCHS standout who emerged as a college sophomore during the past season as a key player at the next level for UMW.

“She’s a true leader on and off the court.”

Out-battling players who stood head and shoulders above her for rebounds, driving to the hole for tough buckets in heavy, tall traffic, diving for loose balls, her thick knee brace clanking off the hardwood, Savanna embodied the term “leaving it all out on the court”—sometimes so thoroughly you worried she might do just that, that she was destined to depart from the game on a stretcher.

“She’s on the floor more than any other player I’ve seen, but she bounces right back up,” said Sierra Bignell, who played with her sister Savanna for two seasons at UMW.

Savanna proved her toughness beyond all reasonable or unreasonable doubt in the 2018–19 season, when she displayed remarkable grit and determination by even being out on the court for the Lady Dawgs’ national title run. Savanna served as a ferocious perimeter defender and provided scoring kick—while playing on essentially one leg due to a tendon and meniscus tears suffered earlier in the season in her right knee, compelling her cousin Kaye, a former Bulldog great, to dub Savanna “the knee-less tornado” after the Dawgs’ national tourney win that culminated with a revenge rout of Oklahoma City.

“She doesn’t really have a knee right now, but nobody would know it,” said Kaye, who led the Lady Bulldogs to the second round of the 2018 NAIA tourney, where UMW fell to a late rally to eventual champs Oklahoma City.

And first and perhaps foremost, Savanna Bignell proved she could meet maybe the toughest standard of all—being worthy of being a Bignell.

“She’s definitely one of the toughest players I’ve ever seen. I’d like to think those Bignell pickup games had a part in that,” said Sierra of the pickup basketball games contested between Bignells at family gatherings.

“I don’t know if you’d want to see a Bignell family pickup game. Those get rough,” advised Sierra, who is perhaps preparing for a dual role in future Bignell scrimmages by studying at Rocky Mountain College to become a physician’s assistant.

“There has been two sets of sisters and Frankie—five of them,” said UMW Women’s Basketball Head Coach Lindsay Woolley of the quintet of Bignells that have played for him since he became the program’s head coach in 2012.

Sammi Bignell finished first or second in scoring in each of her four seasons for the Western women on her way to accumulating over 1600 career points as a Lady Bulldog.

“Sammi was such a proflific scorer,” noted Wooley.

After Sammi, the Lady Bulldogs got boosts in talent and character from Frankie Bignell and Sierra.

“They compete as hard as any players we’ve ever faced,” said Lewis-Clark State College Head Coach Brian Orr of the five Bignells he’s encountered in Frontier Conference play.

“And they can all play the game. I was always impressed by every single one of them and what they got out of their potential. They’ve really represented this program well,” said Orr, who saw the Bignells help pull UMW women’s basketball from the bottom of the Frontier Conference to its summit, and then to the NAIA summit.

“It’s a group of young woman who work extremely hard and are teamoriented and who have bought into the program 100 percent. As a coach, that’s what you hope for,” said Woolley, whose team went in Savanna’s time in Dillon from not qualifying for its own conference tourney to winning the national tourney.

“And to finish off with Savanna has been great. She has been through so much. She’s not necessarily a huge scorer, but she does everything. She’s our spark plug and leader. Our kids pretty much go as she goes,” said Woolley, who earned NAIA Coach of the Year honors last season when the Lady Dawgs won it all.

Savanna said she’d always relish her memories of that national title run, but that her whole time in Dillon will remain special.

“My freshman year we had four Bignells on the team. Being able to play with your cousins and sister—it’s a lot easier. You can trust them and know where they are going to be,” recalled Savanna of the season her family could almost field its own starting five for UMW.

“It’s been harder playing without them. But this Montana Western community makes it feel like you are playing with your family all the time,” said Savanna, who got drawn to UMW the same way her other family members did.

“We’ve always been such a supertight family. Sammi, the oldest, she came here first. And then my brothers and my cousins came to rodeo and really liked the environment of Montana Western and Dillon,” recalled Savanna of the dynamics that brought so many Bignells to Dillon for college.

“And as soon as one made the decision to come here, the rest of us followed. We’d rather play together than have to fight against each other. We didn’t plan it, but it just came together that way,” recalled Bignell, who is set to become a phys ed teacher and coach after college.

“They always told me to make my own choice, but the the whole time, they were hoping I’d become a Dawg, too,” smiled Savanna, whose family is done for now, but maybe not for long, in fortifying UMW women’s basketball.

“I’ve got a little sister coming up in high school. She’s just a sophomore. Hopefully, she’ll become a Dawg, too.”