Sophia Stiles

Sophia Stiles is another in a long line of Malta girls basketball players to sign with Montana. Stiles will play her final high school games Friday and Saturday as part of the Midland Roundtable Montana-Wyoming All-Star Basketball Series.

REBECCA NOBLE, Gazette Staff

MISSOULA -- To Nate Hammond, Sophia Stiles was the blonde willowy middle schooler who lived next door, smiled a lot and babysat his two young children on occasion.

It wasn't until the summer before her freshman year at Malta High School that the head girls' basketball coach finally saw the youngster with a ball in her hands.

"It didn't take long to figure it out," Hammond remembered this week. "One or two open gyms and you could pretty much tell she was going to be starting on the varsity."

The way Hammond discovered his four-year starting point guard, a talented shooter who captured two Montana Gatorade Player of the Year awards and led the M-ettes to four straight State B title games, isn't much different than how Stiles ended up a Lady Griz. The Montana coaching staff happened to find a gem just beyond its front door.

Despite her ever-growing list of accolades, which includes most recently a selection to this week's Midland Roundtable Montana-Wyoming All-Star Basketball Series, Stiles' reputation didn't travel much beyond the borders of the state. She starred for a high school whose enrollment falls short of 150 students and played AAU travel ball just one year in middle school before calling it quits because of the three-hour commute from Malta to Great Falls for practice.

"Lucky for us," said Lady Griz head coach Shannon Schweyen. "She didn't get out and get seen by a lot more people. We would have been in for a battle if people had seen her play."

Stiles became Schweyen's first verbal commitment after the latter took over the Montana program from legendary head man Robin Selvig, who retired after 38 years at the helm last July. There were a handful of semi-uncomfortable conversations with recruits that year about the future of the program, but meetings with Stiles were not among them.

She wanted to be a Lady Griz as much as they did. She wanted to play for Schweyen.

"I looked up to her because she was obviously a really good basketball player," Stiles said of Schweyen, who is still the program's all-time leading scorer 15 years after her last game. "Anything she said I always took to heart."

Last November the Lady Griz signed Stiles and Oregon native Abby Anderson, who committed ahead of Selvig's retirement and stood by her choice after the change in leadership.

"Sophie" is the latest in a fruitful women's hoops pipeline between Missoula and Malta, the tiny town on the Hi-Line that has shrunk below 2,000 in population in recent years. The 5-foot-9 guard will be the eighth Lady Griz who once wore M-ettes blue, and the second to sign with UM in two years after Hailey Nicholson joined the exclusive club a year ago.

Also among that group was Linda Cummings, a cousin to Stiles who donned the maroon and silver in the late 1990s. It's fellow Malta product Skyla Sisco, who overlapped with Cummings for two seasons at Montana, to whom Schweyen compares the latest Malta standout.

Sisco still ranks 15th all-time in Lady Griz history in scoring -- Cummings is 18th -- but attacked the stat sheet from every angle during her time at Montana.

Stiles flashed the same potential as an M-ette. As a senior she posted all-around numbers of 21.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 4.3 steals per game. That followed a junior campaign of 17.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 5.2 steals each time out.

She showed a similar diversity in skill as a three-sport athlete at Malta, running cross country in the falls through her junior year and competing with the track and field team in the springs. Stiles capped her prep career at the State B track meet last month by sweeping the jumping championships -- the long, high and triple jumps.

That included four straight triple titles and three consecutive in the long jump, which means Schweyen's recruitment of Stiles could just as easily have been contested by a collegiate track and field program lobbying for the Malta girl's talents.

"I keep telling my husband, 'You can't have her. Don't even think about it,'" joked Schweyen, who is married to Montana's track and field program director, Brian Schweyen.

But much like her affinity for Montana, which Stiles selected over scholarship offers from Montana State and Montana State Billings (coach Hammond also fielded phone calls from recruiters at larger programs like Utah and Wyoming), she knew basketball was going to be her path. Track was just something you did in the spring to stay in shape.

"Basketball has always been my passion," she said. "Maybe I can jump a little higher for rebounds though."

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