HELENA — As the Carroll College Fighting Saints women's basketball team began their preparations for their first game of the NAIA national tournament in New Orleans, Louisiana on Friday, it signifies many things for the team's seniors.
The final team dinner, the final practice at the P.E. Center, but most importantly the beginning of the end.
"We went to dinner [Monday] as a team, and we're just kind of talking about how, like this is one of the last times it's gonna be this group here and just like appreciating each other's presence, and being around those people knowing that we're never gonna get to do it again," said senior guard Jaidyn Lyman.
"It's really bittersweet. We've been here as seniors have been here for five and six years and so, we've come to work every day. And it's been hard," said senior forward Christine Denny.
With the COVID-19 pandemic restructuring athletic eligibility, Carroll College was able return four players in Dani Wagner, Emma Madsen, Lyman and Denny for a fifth and, in Wagner's case due to a redshirt year, sixth season.
In July 2021, MTN Sports sat down with Carroll College head coach Rachelle Sayers who said this when talking about having her players return:
"They've won three conference titles, they've won three tournament titles, they've gotten to a national tournament every year that they've been here. So to come back for the same thing, to me isn't worth it when they can be starting their careers and start a new chapter in their life. They have so much to look forward to in that part of their lives. And they all said 'Hey, we're coming back for something special.' I have a great relationship with those seniors we've been through a lot. They're a huge part of our program."
Now as the Fighting Saints get set to start yet another national tournament, Sayers noted she's happy all of those players stuck around and hopes they can elevate the program to new heights in the coming weeks.
"It's definitely been worth it for me as a coach, to see these four players continue to do what they love to do, continue to set the standards that we have here at Carroll and continue to get better and better and, and lead this team to places that hopefully we've never been before," said Sayers.
The Fighting Saints women began their travels towards New Orleans on Wednesday, and in the opening round of the tournament, Carroll will face a familiar foe in the Lindsey Wilson College Blue Raiders.
The Fighting Saints and the Blue Raiders squared off in Kentucky to end November, with Carroll College taking a decisive 84-63 victory. Though the teams have a bit of history, a lot can change over the course of the season and the Fighting Saints know it won't be nearly as easy this time around.
"We re-watched their conference tournament games and just kind of seeing the new things that they've been doing and their five-player didn't play against us the first time. So that's something we're looking into. And our fives have been playing great defense and having great offensive production," said Denny.
"It does help a little bit to have played them before, know some of their stuff, know a little bit of their personnel. So I think, not totally relying on the last game, but just knowing that we do have some of that knowledge, that's going to help us for this upcoming game," said Lyman.
The Carroll College women will take on the Blue Raiders in the opening round of the NAIA national tournament at 12 p.m. Mountain time in New Orleans on Friday.