Editor’s Note: This story is the first installment in a series of feature stories about some of the top players, coaches, storylines and history of the Big Sky Tournament. The league’s postseason gets underway on March 9, 2020 in Boise, Idaho.
As the National Anthem ended and Montana’s hyper student section began to once against taunt the Lumberjacks, Caitlyn Malvar waved the engaged crowd of more than 3,500 on with enthusiasm, a beaming smile on her face.
With tipoff at the Big Sky Conference’s most intimidating arena just moments away, Khiarica Rasheed did her best rendition of a dance straight out of “Saturday Night Fever” as the partisan crowd grew louder in an effort to deter the second-place Northern Arizona women’s basketball team.
Although NAU ended up stumbling to the Lady Griz of Montana on February 27 in Missoula, it’s unmistakable that the culture Loree Payne hoped to cultivate when she took a job previously thought to be a dead end has its footing at Northern Arizona.
“We are just having a little bit more fun,” Malvar, NAU’s diverse junior point guard, said with the Big Sky Tournament less than three weeks away and her team alone in second place. “I think the team is vibing a lot better. I think we are truly enjoying each other. The energy is more light, we are playing with less stress.
“I don’t think we have totally played our full potential but we are playing how we can and our success is not a surprise to us.”
This season’s success may not be a surprise to Malvar, Rasheed and the rest of the upstart Lumberjacks. But it is certainly a surprise to anyone that follows Big Sky Conference women’s basketball.
Entering its 20th year as a program heading into the 1994-95 season, NAU had experienced one winning season. In her second season at the helm, in 1995-96, Charli Turner Thorne led the Lumberjacks to a 14-12 campaign that year and a 14-13 finish the following year, finishing fifth in the Big Sky both times. She then took over at Arizona State, where she has posted 444 wins and advanced to the NCAA Tournament 14 times over the last 23 seasons leading up to this campaign.
Meg Sanders, Turner Thorne’s top assistant, took over and continued the incremental climb. She went 107-92 in seven seasons, posting three of what at the time were four of the best seasons in program history, going 22-6 in 1998, 17-11 in 1997 and 17-11 in 2002.
That 1997-98 campaign, Sanders became the first head coach at NAU to claim conference title, the first to be named Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year and the first to defeat the University of Montana. The 22 wins in 1998 remains the single-season program record, joining the 2005-06 team, the one and only Lumberjacks women’s basketball team to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
When Sanders left to join Turner Thorne at ASU in 2004, Laurie Kelly kept the momentum going for a few years, reaching the program’s high-water mark by winning the Big Sky Tournament in 2006 and tying the school record with 22 wins. Then the struggles returned.
Kelly went 44-103 after the program’s last 20-win season in 2007. In four seasons, Sue Darling went 36-82, including just 24-52 in league play. And Robyne Bostick managed just six wins in 30 games, including a 2-14 Big Sky mark in her lone season at the helm in 2016-2017.
Enter Payne, a native of Havre, Montana and a former All-Pac 10 sharpshooter for the Washington Huskies. After a Hall of Fame high school career playing for the Blue Ponies along Montana’s Hi-Line, Payne earned first-team all-conference honors twice and All-American honors as a senior at UW in 2003. She helped the Huskies reach a pair of NCAA Tournaments, including a run to the Elite Eight.
Payne finished her UW career as the program’s seventh-leading scorer of all time with 1,675 points. She hit a school-record 245 3-pointers. The three-time captain is still in the school’s record books in six categories.
“She brags about her playing days every now and then but only about her offense, not about her defense,” said Brandon Huntley, Payne’s top assistant for 10 seasons between two schools.
Payne’s coaching career began at Division II Northwest Nazarene in Idaho in 2003. In 2004, she joined the staff at Portland, where she coached until 2007, when she returned to her alma mater. Payne served as an assistant and the recruiting coordinator at Washington from 2007 until 2010.
Payne got her first head coaching job at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington in 2010. Her first season, she led the Division III Loggers to an 18-8 record that included 11 wins in the Northwest Conference.
During her seven seasons at UPS, Payne led the team to 130 wins and won nearly 70 percent of her games in conference play and overall. Her final season in Tacoma, Payne led her team to a 26-3 record that included a perfect 16-0 mark in the conference. She earned the WBCA NCAA Division III National Coach of the Year award.
That led to her hiring at NAU, but not without serious contemplation from Payne and her staff.
“It was very intriguing to say the least,” Huntley said of the prospects of taking over a job at a school with nearly 30,000 students that won just two Big Sky games and averaged 409 fans per game during Bostick’s lone season.
“I know when she first started telling me about it, it was very intriguing. I’ll tell you one thing about Coach Payne: she never backs down from a challenge. We knew coming into this it was going to be a challenge. We were use to being winners at Puget Sound and always winning so we knew here it was always going to be a challenge to come in and turn this program around but it’s something she really, really wanted.”
Payne describes her first season, a 7-23 campaign that included just four Big Sky wins, as “excruciating”.
“We lost more games my first year then we did my last four years combined at Puget Sound,” Payne said. “I knew what the job was coming in and knew for me to get into Division I, it was probably going to have to be a program that needed rebuilt. I felt confident that having learned so much in my years at Puget Sound that I could come in and change the culture.”
Culture: It’s a heavily used word in modern day college athletics. But cultures vary. And it’s sometimes a goal that is hard to define let alone achieve.
For Payne, her culture is all about positivity, player empowerment and, simply, about having fun. This season, the Lumberjacks are learning for the first time in more than 15 years, winning is perhaps the most fun part about the game of basketball.
“First and foremost, we have tried to instill a winning culture here at NAU,” Huntley said. “We want to create a culture, a fun environment where everyone is having a good time, we are inspiring them to be great, to have a voice, saying just be yourself on and off the basketball court.”
NAU entered its late-February road swing through Montana sitting alone in second place in the Big Sky standings. Even after the 70-57 setback against the Lady Griz in Missoula and a 73-71 loss at Montana State on Saturday, Northern Arizona sits at 12-7 in league play, 15-13 overall.
“I think Loree has done an incredible job in a short amount of time and I think that’s one of the toughest teams to guard in our conference,” Binford said. “I think they have great action. I think they have great scorers. We were trying to weather the storm today and they have played us really, really tight both games so this was a good win for us.”
The Big Sky win total is already the second-most in school history. NAU enters its final game against Portland State alone in fourth place.
“It’s tough to change a mindset from a team that is used to losing. I think people get so used to winning just the same as so used to losing,” Payne said. “To come in and really try to change that mindset, that came first.
“Teaching kids how to win when they haven’t won is tough but you just keep believing in them and making sure they believe in themselves and just keep building and building and building. You get the right kids and you have the right staff and now we are living in that right now.”
The energy, intensity and joy the Lumberjacks have played with this season have helped pace compete and even out-pace perennial contenders like Idaho State and Idaho.
Payne has upgraded the NAU roster significantly, retaining a group of freshmen including Rasheed and Lauren Orndoff from her first recruiting class. She’s also added some of the league’s top transfers, including junior sharpshooter Jaycee Bailey (Florida Atlantic) in her first class along with sophomore scoring guard Nina Radford (UC Santa Barbara) and grad transfer guard Seneca Richards (LIU Brooklyn) in her most recent class.
“She has done a great job of keeping a good core group together, developing them,” Idaho State 12th-year head coach Seton Sobolewski, the third-longest tenured coach in the league, said in February. “They took their lumps early but they have stayed patient and kept the group together and kept improving.
“They have done a great job in recruiting. She picked up some big transfers, particularly in Radford. Rasheed is probably one of the best post players in our conference. She is undersized but they did a great job of developing her and working with her.
“I think they are a really good team now. I think they are one of the top teams in the Big Sky. I think they are really scary this year and they will be even scarier next year when those kids are a little bit older.”
Although Malvar is a multi-year starter, she actually started her career at UPS under Payne’s direction where she started 22 games as a true freshman. Malvar and sophomore Regan Schenck, a starter for 22 games as a true freshman last season, make up perhaps the toughest one-two punch at point guard of any platoon in the league.
Those two guide an offense that is averaging 74.2 points per game in conference play, the second-best average behind only league-champion Montana State.
Rasheed leads the conference in points per game (18.9) in league play while shooting 51.5 percent from the floor. Bailey ranks sixth at 14.1 points per conference contest and is shooting 40.5 percent from beyond the arc. Radford’s 11.8 points per game is also ranked 20th. Malvar’s 4.6 assists per game ranks fifth while Schenk is also in the top 25.
“The main thing is we have a little more depth within our team,” Huntley said. “We have different talent. Last year, we had one or two players that we went to every single time. This team, we have a great group that we can lean on.
“Khiarica, she is going to show up every single night because she is that type of competitor. Then you have a J.C. Bailey, who can come out and give you 20 points, you have Nina Radford who can give you 20 points, Lauren Orndoff can come out of nowhere and give you 20 points. Caitlyn Malvar is going to give you close to a triple double every night.”
It remains to be seen if NAU can make any noise in this year’s Big Sky Tournament the second week of March in Boise, Idaho. All three senior Lumberjacks come off the bench and none play more than 10 minutes a game.
But 15-12 certainly feels better than 7-23 for Payne, who remains fiercely competitive despite her encouraging, positive coaching style and friendly personality. And she is effusive about the growth the program has made under her watch.
“It’s been a challenging couple of years trying to build a program from the ground up,” Payne said. “We are sitting in a place where we finally have the right players in, we finally have the right foundation built. We have been able to change a culture and completely turn it 180. Things are finally starting to come to fruition.
“We are excited to be in a position where we can contend and we have been saying it since the beginning: we want to contend for it this year and if we put in the work, the results will come.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.