HELENA — Just like the words of acclaimed rapper Drake in the song 'Grammys', Carroll College basketball is "top five, top five, top five."
When the most recent NAIA Coaches Top 25 polls were released, seven NAIA schools had programs on both the men's and the women's lists. Carroll is the only school of the seven that has both the men's and women's programs ranked in the top five.
The Fighting Saints women are off to a solid start on the year garnering a No. 5 placement after starting 9-2, with their two losses coming against No. 3 Thomas More and No. 4 Southeastern. This season, the team is headlined by players who are into their fifth, or even their sixth year with the program and this final ride is getting off to a great start.
"Being here six years, we all know each other, we know each other's strengths, we trust each other," said Carroll College senior guard Dani Wagner. "It's just fun to come out on the court and have confidence in one another knowing that at the end of the day, we're going to give it our all and probably succeed."
Head coach Rachelle Sayers said this year, despite the experience on the roster, there’s still that same level of intensity from her squad, whether it be in the film room or the weight room. However, thanks to that level of experience, it's a little easier to give her players a little bit of free rein.
“I think you build a level of trust with players that you've coached, you know? You're looking at Dani Wagner for six years, Christine Denny — five years, Jaidyn Lyman — five years. So, you're looking at some of these kids, you've coached a long time, and you develop a trust in them and you know that they're going to be able to do what you're asking them to do," said Sayers. "We've got to back off and give them that opportunity to do that.”
But why would players come back for a fifth or even a sixth season?
“I think just the idea that we really can win at all," said senior Christine Denny. "[Sayers] has challenged us a lot in this preseason and I think we've proven that we can play with the best in the country.”
For the Carroll men, it’s been relatively smooth sailing en route to an undefeated start at 12-0 and No. 4 ranking in the NAIA polls. Last season, through their first 10 games, the Fighting Saints were 5-5. As for the difference this year, players are buying in and getting more comfortable in Kurt Paulson's program.
“The chemistry we all have with each other playing the last two and a half years, that definitely plays a huge factor. And just really playing paying attention to detail," said junior forward Ifeanyi Okeke. "I feel like last year around this time, we weren't really as focused in the film room, we weren't really as focused in practice, and we weren't really locked in on what coach wanted us to do defensively and offensively and I feel like we have locked in on all of those things this year.”
Though the Fighting Saints men are off to their best start since the 2017-18 season, Paulson doesn't want his team getting too high or too low as they make their way through this year.
"We've just been trying to take it a week at a time. We've already played around 12 to 13 games and it's been fast and furious since October 15 when we first had our home game. So you can't look too far ahead because there's a game right around the corner," said Paulson.
But a team that’s been to, or was destined for, the NAIA National Tournament for six straight years has no intentions of setting their sights any lower than they have to.
"I mean, you know, coach [Paulson] always says one game at a time, but obviously we're going to look for a national championship," said junior Jonny Hillman. "That's what we've been doing the last few years and we've gotten close and we think that we definitely have a team that can make a deep run this year."
Though there's still a lot of season left, it's safe to say the Fighting Saints' priorities lie in getting the postseason and making the most of it.