Montana Western women's basketball coach Lindsay Woolley was steadfast in his conviction.
“I honestly think that the team that wins the league is going to have at least five losses,” Woolley said in Dillon, about two weeks ago after his team knocked down Carroll College. “It wouldn’t surprise me one bit. It’s going to be four or five.”
The Bulldogs had just "upset" the Saints, who were then on top of the conference. His Bulldogs were in a slump. And now, the Bulldogs are in the midst of a five-game winning streak, the hottest team in the Frontier, and right back in the thick of things.
Rocky Mountain, Providence and Carroll are all tied at 7-3 atop the standings. Western ranks behind them at 6-4. Woolley believing weeks ago that the conference winner would suffer four or five losses looked more impressive then, and looks like a guarantee now.
A season after Lewis-Clark State College rampaged through the Frontier – falling only twice on the season, once to Carroll College and then again in the national championship game – there is no clear favorite in the Frontier. This season, the Frontier is a conference full of intriguing storylines – albeit unpredictable ones.
Remember the preseason poll? Coaches paid their respects and picked the winner to be LCSC, a team that returned some key pieces of that title-game run. The Warriors were picked as favorites, but now past the halfway point of the conference season the Warriors going on a massive run to win the conference is as about as likely as the President praising the New York Times.
Woolley shared a similar sentiment about the conference favorites with Saints coach Rachelle Sayers ahead of their teams’ second meeting a few weeks back.
“I said you’re probably not going to run the table,” he said. “Great Falls is probably not going to run the table. It’s too balanced.”
And while preseason polls’ shelf life usually expires after the opening tip, the rest of the poll is slightly prophetic. Two teams were tied for second at 23 votes – Western and Northern. Carroll sat in fourth and Rocky in fifth, one vote separating both of those places. In other words, coaches foresaw a logjam.
Here we are, with a bottleneck at the top of the conference. Sure, Northern plummeted and Providence was greatly undervalued, but that’s the nature of the game. Flip-flop those two teams and the coaches were on to something.
Now, we have the Argonauts with perhaps the best turnaround in their program’s history. After winning one conference game a season ago, the Argonauts are every bit as good as their 16-5 record suggests.
Owning a share of the conference lead with eight games to play is impressive, and nothing says the Argonauts are done yet. They feature a league MVP candidate in Stephanie McDonagh, as well as a freshman of the year candidate in Parker Esary.
They will certainly be tested with six of their final eight games on the road, but the fact they’re in this position at all is remarkable.
Rocky, too, is an intriguing storyline. Whispers around the conference pointed at the Battlin’ Bears preseason conference and suggested they played a soft schedule to pad their record.
With an NAIA berth in hand by virtue of hosting the final tournament, people went as far as to suggest the Battlin’ Bears took those games to look like a team that belonged, not like a team reaping a perk, like the 2016-17 team that went to the tournament as a 13-18 underdog.
Now? The Battlin’ Bears are playing winning basketball, and giving the rest of the Frontier fits. Anybody who doubted Rocky before is learning the hard way that basketball in Billings is alive and well. Behind a deep and aggressive defense, Rocky is also one of the best stories to come out of the Frontier this season.
Rocky coach Wes Keller could only laugh when he was asked to give his opinion on the Frontier moments after his team defeated Carroll College in Helena for the first time since 2012 a week ago.
“I think our league is the best in the country from top to bottom,” he said.
Carroll College, too, is writing a unique story this season. With All-American Cassidy Hashley taking a medical redshirt, many thought the Saints would be down, especially after struggling to a fifth-place finish with the Kalispell-native terrorizing teams a season ago.
Instead, Carroll is leaning on Hannah Dean, Bailey Pasta and a host of underclassmen to not only take a step forward, but threaten to win the conference.
And let’s not forget Western. The Bulldogs have built the best current winning streak and have beaten all the top teams after an earlier lull. Western is powering toward the top of the conference behind its defense and the playmaking of Brianna King, who in her first season is making a strong case as an MVP candidate and a newcomer of the year.
A year ago, and probably every season since coaches started talking to the media, coaches remarked about the parity in their league. In the Frontier last season, that simply wasn’t true. It was LCSC’s conference from the beginning.
This season, however, that parity is back and Woolley probably summed it up best.
“It’s just going to be who can get hot and stay hot and keep winning,” he said.
If you’re looking to see a competitive basketball game, the Frontier Conference is delivering.