MISSOULA — With 12 days remaining before their opener at Utah State, the new-look Montana Lady Griz have adopted a different approach in their preseason preparation.
They're battling tooth-and-nail with a lot more scrimmaging and competing in drills than the veterans are accustomed to doing.
"The difference from last year's practices is we play a lot more," said junior forward Abby Anderson, one of three returning starters along with guards Sophia Stiles and Madi Schoening. "We're doing little competitions all the time, and it's building everyone's competitive side up.
"Then at the end, when we are scrimmaging, it gets scrappy and words are exchanged. That's different for us, but I like it. We're learning to be a lot more gritty. We're going to need grit and sass to make up for the players we lost."
Much has been made of the fact the Montana women's basketball team has seven returning players and eight newcomers. The Big Sky Conference pollsters aren't real impressed, picking the Lady Griz to finish as low as seventh.
First-year head coach Mike Petrino is the first to admit this fall has been a work in progress.
"I'll be honest, what I thought we were going to do, we're not going to do because we're seeing them in person, and it makes you tinker with your thought process," he said. "Offensively, defensively, we're still searching for an identity. We're trying to get everybody on the same page."
Anderson is the top returning scorer for Montana, averaging nine points per game last season. She's probably going to need to score more to make up for the departure of McKenzie Johnston, Emma Stockholm, Jamie Pickens, Gabi Harrington and Taylor Goligoski.
On the other hand, maybe not.
"All of our five true freshmen are super competitive and they don't back down at all," Anderson said of a group that includes Montana natives Willa Albrecht, Kyndall Keller, Joelnell Momberg and Karsen Murphy and Portland's Bria Dixson.
"They're super vocal. It's a different freshman group than I've ever seen. They're confident. I think that's really cool. Then having Lauren (Mills) and Nyah (Morris-Nelson) and Hannah (Thurmon) as transfers, they just fit in so well right away. It just felt like we were going to have to rebuild a lot. But once everyone got here, I feel like we clicked really fast."
On a team filled with question marks, Anderson is the closest thing to a sure thing. Of the seven returning players, she was the most consistent shooter last season, hitting 44.3% of her attempts from the floor (98 for 221). Plus, she garnered more rebounds (124) and blocked shots (65) than any of her current teammates.
Those numbers are among the most promising for a team that has struggled in recent years. Montana hasn't won a Big Sky Conference tournament game in three years and has lost seven of its last eight games against arch-rival Montana State.
Petrino and assistant coaches Jordan Sullivan, Jace Henderson and Nate Covill have had their hands full trying to piece together their 2020-21 personnel. It's not going to happen overnight, but there are reasons to be optimistic.
"What pleases me the most is the consistent focus they've had showing up during these crazy conditions," Petrino said, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic. "For the most part we've done a good job of bringing competitiveness and energy to practice. We live in a world with more questions than answers, so that part has been good."
Petrino hasn't put in a lot of new sets in his first season at the helm. At least not yet.
That's a departure from the last two coaches, Robin Selvig and Shannon Schweyen.
"Historically I think the Lady Griz have been like a set team — we have lots of sets," Anderson said. "I think (Petrino) is trying to teach us right now just how to play basketball.
"We've been doing lots of motion, lots of triangle, just figuring out how to play off screens. It's been cool and we're slowly putting more sets in, finding out what each other's strengths are and how to use them."
As for his strategy to make preseason practices ultra-competitive, Petrino has a logical explanation:
"We have no idea how much time we have," he said, referring to the constant threat of COVID-19 interruptions. "My motto in life now is plan, prepare and pivot. You have to prepare for changes and pivot when necessary.
"We don't have the luxury of knowing for sure how many practices we'll have before our first game. We're one COVID test away from being altered. So as much as you can get in, you have to prepare that way. And I think you have to be simple."
The good news for the Lady Griz is that 14 of 15 team members were in practice earlier this week. That gives Petrino and his staff plenty of competitors for extended scrimmages.
"I feel like right now we're in survive and advance," the coach offered. "Every time we survive a (weekly) COVID test we can advance in practice, and that's big."
Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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