BILLINGS — Rachel Koehler has an opinion on everything.
Just ask her.
Or don’t. The friendly, self-described “loose cannon,” will share them anyway.
From politics to basketball, to the pursuit of making her teammates laugh, Koehler is not afraid to share her thoughts.
“Life’s too short to hold in everything,” said the senior for the Montana State Billings women’s basketball team.
This day, Koehler is trying to fight off a cold as she visits prior to practice. The next day the Yellowjackets would be leaving for California to play in the NCAA Division II West Region.
“I like to communicate with people,” she continued. “I love to talk … with anybody. Even when I’m by myself, I’m talking.”
And Koehler has plenty to talk about.
Not many college athletes get a second opportunity after being told their career was over.
'Never know who's watching'
Koehler was a standout athlete at Billings Senior. A three-time Class AA all-state selection, she was the 2012 Gatorade Player of the Year. Koehler also earned honorable mention all-conference honors in basketball and holds the school’s triple jump record.
While there were more accolades in soccer, basketball was already her chosen path.
“Basketball has always been my favorite sport,” said Koehler, a physical 5-foot-10 player known for her rebounding, adept passing and hustle plays. “It’s something I can play with my brothers (Scotty Owens, Jesse Owens)."
Cal Poly, a Division I program on the central California coast, found Koehler as she played the AAU circuit. She played on the Northwest Blazers with current MSUB teammate Alisha Breen and also on a team with Liv Roberts of Missoula and Fairfield’s Jill Barta. Roberts, who plays for Wyoming, was recently selected the Mountain West player of the year, while Barta earned the same in the West Coast Conference for Gonzaga.
“It was a danky gym in Portland, I remember that,” said Koehler of the initial contact. “They liked the way I hustled. Shows you’ve got to play hard every time, you never know who is watching.”
She played three seasons for the Mustangs, before her college career came to an abrupt end.
Nine games into her junior season in 2016, Koehler dove for a loose ball against UC Riverside.
It’s a play made she’s done hundreds of times before.
“That’s just the way I play,” Koehler said. “If there’s a 50-50 ball, I want to make it 100-0 us.”
Koehler took a knee to the head. She still doesn’t remember the play.
“I had to go back and watch the tape,” said Koehler.
Diagnosed with a severe concussion, she sat in a dark dorm room for two weeks. “I was kind of scared, I’m not going to lie to you,” Koehler said.
She found it difficult to focus in class. “Especially when you’re on the quarter system when everything is sped up,” Koehler said. “It was really confusing at times.”
An English class assignment reaffirmed the severity of her injury.
“I was reading a book for the class and all the words were jumbled,” she recalled. “I even tried to read out loud and couldn’t. I was thinking, ‘Oh this sucks.’ “
After seeing a series of specialists and not being able to pass Cal Poly’s concussion protocol, a neurologist made it final.
“You’ve got to stop playing,” the doctor told Koehler.
“At first, I got frustrated," she said. "And at some point, it’s a super emotional moment because it’s something you’ve dedicated your life to.”
On with life
Koehler returned to Billings in January of 2017, ready to put basketball behind her.
“I wanted to be with my mom (Jill Koehler), she’s my rock,” said the daughter.
Koehler got a job as a veterinary assistant and started thinking about the rest of her life.
Passionate about everything, she thinks about working in community outreach programs or being involved with political movements in her future.
“I was done,” Koehler said of basketball. “I was ready to get on with the rest of my life."
As Koehler pondered her next step, “I was planning on taking classes at MSUB,” she said, her cell phone kept buzzing with calls from MSUB players during the summer.
Now clear-headed and physically rested, Koehler joined the Yellowjackets during open gym sessions. “I played if they needed somebody,” said Koehler.
Always needing an inside presence, and familiar with her game from high school, MSUB coach Kevin Woodin called Koehler into his office.
“Do you want to play here?” he asked.
Woodin had already run it past the current seniors on the roster about adding a player with one season of eligibility.
“Let’s do it,” they told their coach.
Koehler didn’t hesitate with her answer.
“I knew about Kevin and the program,” she said. “During the summer, the players were so welcoming. I didn’t have to think about it at all. I knew I kind of wanted to help. To be part of a common goal again. I like being on a team.”
Come a long way
Koehler has played in 23 games this season. She had a season-high 11 points in the semifinal win over Northwest Nazarene in the GNAC Tournament, including a rare 3-pointer, and played a season-high 25 minutes in the championship win over Seattle Pacific.
“Rachel just brings an intensity to the court that helps us,” said Woodin. “She’s helped fill a void in the post position.”
And Koehler contributes in other ways, according to the coach.
“She does a great job helping the younger players,” Woodin added.
Koehler picks her spots when to speak up. “I know this is Alisha and Rylee’s (Kane) team,” she acknowledged. “I try to share something during timeouts.
“I try to keep the attitude positive. It’s tough when you’re a younger player first coming in. I try to show them no matter what mistakes you make, your teammates always have your back.”
Along with on-court contributions, Koehler had another goal.
“I love to joke around,” she said. “My project this year was to figure out whose humor is what. What makes her laugh?”
Some teammates were easier than others to get a smile from.
Koehler is now preparing to play in the NCAA Tournament with her new teammates.
“I’m just ecstatic,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better. From where I was, I’ve come a long way.
“I’m having a boat load of fun.”
Just ask her.