BUTTE — Right around Christmas break, Montana Tech women’s basketball coach Carly Sanon had a serious conversation with her team.
They were looking for leaders, for captains. It was a process that had started at a team bonding exercise before the season, when the entire team spent a night in a cabin in the woods.
During the late-December meeting, Sanon gave each player a slip of paper and asked to write down what a captain should be and what they felt they should do on and off the court.
After, they voted, and ended up with three: Kourtney Coverdell, Sammy McGree and Hannah Sparks.
Each of the players have had different paths to play on the hardwood for the Orediggers. Sparks', however, might just have been the longest.
It’s given the junior guard perspective and strength, but it would be foolish to think it’s been anything close to easy. There’s been plenty of sweat and blood put into a jump from high school to junior college, the transfer to Montana Tech and then a recovery from a season-ending knee injury.
“She has a tremendous work ethic,” Sanon said. “She’s gonna bring it in the weight room, she’s going to bring it while we’re conditioning and she brings it to practice every day.”
Her journey started in Colorado, where she starred at Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora. A second-team All-state basketball selection as a senior, she also garnered accolades on the track.
Talented, she was looking at schools to play for when one, a junior college called Western Nebraska in a town of 15,039 called Scottsbluff, reached out to her. It was 3.5 hours from Aurora, which by comparison, has 361,710 people.
“When the coach first called me at my high school in Colorado, I kinda brushed it off,” Sparks said. “But after visiting there and seeing their games, I saw they were a really good team and played hard.
“I just wanted to play basketball and work on my schooling and what better place to do it than in a small town with nothing else to do, right?”
An incredibly good student, Montana Tech’s academic programs were one of the reasons she decided to become an Oredigger. Currently a biology major, the goal is medical school, which hopefully, she says, will keep her somewhere around the west.
Sanon first saw Sparks play at a junior college tournament in Gillette, Wyoming and liked live what the game tape had already shown her. She’d contacted several coaches about getting a guard with a bit of experience, as Hattie Thatcher — who, last season, set the ‘Diggers all-time assist record — was going to graduate after the 2016-17 season. Sanon also wanted to keep Kourtney Coverdell, a junior, at shooting guard.
Sanon needed someone to run the point and Sparks got an offer.
“Carly called me and told me about this place, how it was a small mountain town, and I already was in a pretty small town and this was bigger,” Sparks said. “I came up here and realized how good they were, how good of a STEM college this is.
“I wanted to be back in the mountains again. It was the perfect fit.”
Last season, her first at Tech, she had a first-hand experience with the very profession Sparks hopes to one day join. Three games into the year, she tore her ACL and took a medical redshirt.
It was a disappointing early season exit, but she made the best of the situation. Sparks stayed in Butte over the summer, rehabbing and working out with her coaches.
The extra time also allowed her to get an internship and do some research on campus.
“It gave me time to rehab and get stronger,” Sparks said. “Time to work on my shot and my game while I was down and out.”
Averaging 7.9 points and leading the team with 2.7 assists per game, Sparks’ presence has been felt in the 19 games she’s started for the Orediggers this season.
Tech is riding a two-game win streak heading into a men’s and women’s doubleheader against Carroll College on Thursday evening, which starts at 5:30 p.m. The team is feeling confident and so is Sparks.
She’s coming off a 16 point outing during a 71-59 win over MSU-Northern, a game in which she also had four rebounds, five assists and two steals.
“I’m just now getting back into the groove of really competing again after coming off the ACL tear,” Sparks said. “The roundabout way was long, but it's been worth it.”