As the Montana State Billings bus rumbled through the Bozeman pass in mid-January, Kevin Woodin was wondering how his team would handle the change of plans.
The Yellowjacket women’s basketball team was scheduled to fly out the day before to Washington state for road games at Central Washington and Northwest Nazarene.
But their Billings flight was cancelled and MSUB was forced to bus over to Bozeman the next morning for a flight the day of the game.
There would be no time for a pregame shootaround. MSUB would only have time for a meal and the game in Ellensburg.
“We were thinking, ‘What else could go wrong?’ ” said Woodin.
Little did the veteran coach know what awaited him the final stretch of the season.
Later that same night, the Yellowjackets lost starter Annie DePuydt to a season-ending knee injury.
A month later at Western Oregon, Janiel Olson, the Great Northwest Athletic Conference defensive player of the year, would go down with the same type of injury.
The Yellowjackets could have easily buckled. But they did not.
Each player took a little more responsibility in her game.
They played harder.
And MSUB kept winning.
Without two starters, the Yellowjackets advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division II national tournament.
Teams don’t lose two starters and win in the postseason. It just doesn’t happen.
But MSUB made it happen.
“We have to find a way,” Woodin told the players after each setback. “The players did a great job of putting the team first.”
The Yellowjackets won 25 games, matching a program record for most wins in a season. And MSUB dominated the GNAC postseason awards with player of the year (Bobbi Knudsen), defensive player of the year (Olson), newcomer of the year (Chelsea Banis) and coach of the year (Woodin).
Along with being Woodin’s best year as MSUB’s head coach, it might have also been his most complex with the constant lineup and emotional adjustments.
“I enjoy them all,” he said of his teams. “But this team was special, given all the adversity it faced on, and off, the court.
“But this team continued to get back up, keep their goals in sight and play hard.”
The first time off the mat was after losing DePuydt, a high-energy guard-forward.
“She’s a tough one to replace,” said Woodin. “She’s so good at both ends of the court … Annie is solid defensively and offensively.”
Woodin considered taking Monica Grimsrud out of her redshirt season, but she was battling foot problems of her own. “She was still two, three weeks away from being ready,” said the coach.
“We talked to everybody about stepping up and playing better.”
Senior Austin Hanser made the transition seamless, as her minutes doubled. “Austin really accepted the challenge and elevated her game the second half of the season,” Woodin continued.
Olson, climbing the career rebounding charts, was injured in the final seconds of the Western Oregon game.
“You’re replacing the defensive player of the year,” said Woodin. “Janiel has a knack of defending an opponent’s best player without fouling. And all of a sudden, we didn’t have that.”
The coaches -- Woodin and assistants Nate Harris and Jenny Heringer -- discussed many times the team’s dwindling options.
Late in the season at games, there were almost as many players in street clothes -- seven -- as there were in uniform -- eight.
“It takes time to figure out who is going to replace a starter’s minutes,” Woodin said. “Do we do it with two people or maybe go with a bigger lineup? It impacts so many ways. It’s just not next player in.”
Alisha Breen took Olson’s spot on the court. The freshman from Choteau responded by scoring in double figures six of the last eight games and producing double-digit rebounding games in the other two.
“Alisha played at an outstanding level the last few games,” said her coach.
Knudsen continued her All-America play, Kayleen Goggins was her steady self and Banis continued to be a presence in the middle for MSUB.
The team took an emotional body blow when Quinn Peoples’ older sister Mairissa lost her battle to cancer the week of the NCAA West Region tournament.
Peoples returned home to Butte early that week to be with her sister. She left for California on Wednesday with her sister’s blessing to play. Mairissa Peoples passed away early Thursday.
Quinn Peoples played in all three games, including wins over Academy of Art and Simon Fraser.
“I know Quinn was exhausted that weekend,” Woodin said.
And through it all, the team remained together.
Despite being out with injuries, Olson and DePuydt were at every practice and every game, cheering their teammates.
“I think that really helped their teammates,” said Woodin. “I’m really proud of the staff and players how they handled these challenges.
“The fun in coaching, for me, is the unpredictability of things. Coaches try to map out how things are going to work out. And sometimes things don’t go as planned.
“I enjoyed the journey as much as the destination.”