Editor's note: This is the third in an eight-part series profiling some of the state's basketball stars and the hoops that helped make them who they are today.
MALTA – When Malta girls basketball coach Nate Hammond recently unveiled a glossy poster of the M-Ettes’ updated records, Sophia Stiles and KayDel (Soennichsen) Stiles immediately were drawn to the heading “Assists Career” and its list of five names.
Daughter looked at Mom, whose name is second at 488. Mom looked at daughter, whose name is fifth at 375 with a year remaining in a decorated career.
It was on.
“I see my name below hers and I don’t like it,” Sophia, feigning disgust, recalled of her instant reaction.
“You can move up as long as you're below me,” came KayDel’s empathetic response. "You can be No. 3."
Sophia laughs as she recounts the playful family warfare. She is sitting in the upstairs bleachers in Malta’s creaky Old Gym, the surviving brick structure from a 1995 Christmas Eve fire that destroyed the rest of the high school.
Truth is, it was mostly on the six old hoops in this popular community gathering spot, after the family moved from Whitewater near the Canadian border when Sophia was in junior high, where Malta’s latest female basketball superstar and Montana’s reigning Gatorade Player of the Year honed her shooting, dribbling and passing skills as the gym-rat daughter of coaches.
Her primary mentor?
“My mom, she’s the main one who always took me to gym,” said Sophia, a cheerful and unflappable 5-foot-9 guard. “She was a good point guard and taught me everything she knows.”
Those lessons have helped the M-Ettes to unprecedented heights in a program accustomed to achievement. Under Stiles’ on-floor direction, Malta hasn’t lost since the 2014 Class B state championship against Fairfield, a game she started at point guard as a freshman.
As a junior, the lean and lithe do-everything Havre native averaged 17.1 points, 5.6 assists, 5.1 steals and 4.4 rebounds per game as the M-Ettes closed a perfect season with a measure of revenge against Fairfield in the title game. More of the same is anticipated on the Hi-Line this winter, even with the departure of top scorer Hailey Nicholson, who plays for the Montana Lady Griz and is awaiting her best friend’s arrival next autumn so they can resume their basketball synchronicity and binge watching of “Lost” and “Survivor”.
“We’re pretty fortunate,” Hammond said. “As a basketball coach you always want talented athletes, but it’s also very important to have great leadership and great kids on the team. Sophie is just a great leader all the way through. You don’t get to coach kids like that very often.”
The excellence extends to the classroom and community as well. Stiles carries a 3.73 grade-point average, and her work with the Malta Food Bank and area beautification projects were among achievements touted when Gatorade surprised nobody but her in announcing its award in March.
“She has certainly earned the accolades that she’s received to this point,” Malta principal and athletic director Scott King said, “but it comes with a lot of hard work and determination. Her success is bound by the work she puts in.”
Such ethic has been a family trait since the early years for Sophia and her four siblings in Whitewater, where their dad, Del, was boys basketball coach at a school once famous for its remote location at the end of a long dirt road.
Other than occasional games of corral tag “with, like, the other eight kids in town”, Stiles mostly remembers being in the gym, where as a toddler she rolled along the sidelines in a walker while her parents coached and her siblings shot hoops. She fondly recalls games where the Stiles clan – sister Mercedes and brothers Shade, Jaren and Dane – challenged many of those same eight kids.
“You go to the gym,” she said of Whitewater. “That’s the only thing.”
The brothers had notable athletic careers at Whitewater High and each would play collegiately: Shade in football at MSU-Northern, Jaren as a golfer at Rocky Mountain College and Dane in basketball at Montana Western. Mercedes was all-state in basketball as a senior for the M-Ettes when Sophia was a freshman, but gave up the game to be a beautician in Malta.
The family athletic gene pool doesn’t end there. Sophia’s cousin Linda Cummings was a standout for the M-Ettes and part of the Lady Griz pipeline in the late 1990s. Her uncle, Craig Stiles, qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the javelin while at Montana in the early 1970s and was among the first 11 inductees into Montana’s High School Hall of Fame in 1993.
Now it’s the brightest star of the bunch's turn to shine, and with Nicholson’s scoring ability in Missoula the spotlight will be brightest this winter.
“I suppose I look for her to have to take on little more scoring role,” Hammond said. “With Nicholson, the kids could always throw the ball up to and she’d score. We’ve got some other kids who are pretty good that way, too, but Sophie was able to pass off a lot of scoring last year to her. We’ll just have to see.
“If you compare all players to Sophie it looks like they aren’t doing very well, but they are doing pretty well.”
Stiles, who envisions majoring in psychology in Missoula, says her goals this winter are simple: Continue to improve her overall game, win a third consecutive state title, go undefeated.
“I think we could go undefeated,” she said, adding: “But I guess more than going undefeated I want to win the title again.”
So, four or five losses is OK if there’s another Class B girls title for Malta in the end? Stiles laughed.
“I don’t want to lose by any means,” she continued. “Actually, I definitely do not want to lose at all. I hate losing.”
Oh, and there’s one other goal for a player who already holds Malta’s school records for steals in a season (133) and career (383). Doing the math, she would have to average around five assists per game – similar to her junior year – to catch a certain No. 2 on the career list and even surpass No. 1 Laramie Schwenke at 499.
Of course, it might disrupt family harmony, but come to think of it …
“My mom always taught me to pass the ball before I shoot,” Sophia said. “So it’s going to be her fault if I beat her!”