MALTA – Sophia Stiles wasn’t supposed to be here. Not like this.
The two-time Montana Gatorade basketball player of the year, two-time Class B champion and four-time state finalist was back inside the gym at Malta High School this summer, on the same court she won countless games during her M-ette career, recounting the moment she knew something was wrong.
Three minutes into the third quarter of the University of Montana’s home game against North Dakota, Stiles, the stellar freshman, sliced to the basket and landed awkwardly on the Dahlberg Arena floor. Days later, Stiles’ season was finished with a confirmed ACL tear.
“I’ve never had to sit out of games for ankles or any injuries, so this is way different for me. Mentally, it’s a struggle, still,” said Stiles, who says sprained ankles were previously her most serious injury. “I’m hoping to get (healthy). I want to play next year, I think, if I’m physically ready, but mostly mentally. I don’t want to go into a season where I don’t think I’ll be playing my best basketball.”
Fans caught a glimpse of Stiles’ college potential last winter. Once expected to redshirt, the true freshman averaged 7.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. She exploded for 26 points in a January win over Southern Utah and quickly became a key contributor for coach Shannon Schweyen, who admittedly “couldn’t keep her off the court.”
Stiles was bringing energy and providing spark for a program that had already dealt with its share of injuries, but her level of confidence wasn’t always high.
“Going in, (NCAA Division I basketball is) a lot different than high school. Your confidence is way different. You’re used to doing things, following instincts, but once I got there I was second-guessing everything I was doing. I was like, ‘This is what I want to do, but is that what I’m supposed to do?’ It was a little hard,” Stiles said. “Once you get into it, you obviously get more comfortable and that’s when I felt like I started playing my best. You know, a couple games before I tore my ACL. Things were going well, I thought.”
At times Stiles’ voice fades, clearly disappointed, not only in the injury, but for missing her best friend on the team, Taylor Goligoski, hit the game-winner against UND.
“I actually went to dinner with her and Jace (Henderson) and Caitlin (Lonergan) in my first week there. We made cookies and we’ve been friends ever since,” laughed Stiles.
Goligoski, who missed time last season with an injury of her own, was quick to offer encouragement as Stiles sought her options.
“Everyone’s really supportive,” said Stiles, who eventually found herself on the operating table of one of the most famous sports surgeons in the world.
“I waited two months before I got the surgery because I went to Florida, there’s a really good surgeon down there, Dr. James Andrews, he does a lot of the NFL players’ surgeries. I was going to wait as long as I had to if I was going to get to him,” said Stiles. “I’m actually part of a research study where they’re doing stem cell research. I have a thing around my new ACL filled with stem cells they got from my hip, and rehab has been going well. Everything is on track, I think.”
Stiles brightens when discussing the operation, which “three months out of post-op, looked more like six or seven months along.” She admits to being nervous, scared in fact, that the trial might not work, but rehabbing in her hometown has provided a sense of safety.
“I was really excited about (coming back to Malta) because I wanted to be here for the summer. I don’t really know if we necessarily have all of the greatest things for me, but I felt like I was going to be doing the same things here or there. It’s really nice to be with family and the community,” she said.
“She’s hopefully been working hard up there,” Schweyen joked back in late May, visibly excited about Stiles’ progression, which has seen workouts at the Phillips County physical therapy office and a local gym and strength training in a hotel swimming pool.
Stiles has also found comfort in Schweyen, the former Lady Griz all-American-turned-coach. The two share energy, passion and a desire to win, which should bode well for UM in the future. Schweyen has shown her trust in the instinctive guard, inserting her into the starting lineup in the second half of last season, and Stiles delivered.
“She’s good, she’s great. She’s taught me a lot of different things that you wouldn’t think about coming from high school to college, certain ways to pass where you won’t get it picked off and things like that,” Stiles said of learning from Schweyen. “Obviously she’s super competitive, she always wants to win and always pushes us really hard. That’s nice. She believes in us, which is huge. Off the court she’s awesome. When I tore my ACL she invited me over for dinner. She cares about us and she’s funny. She likes to have a good time. Oh, and she’s a good cook.”
Stiles told MTN Sports on Tuesday she still hasn’t decided whether or not she will play this season. She’s working hard to get back on the court, but her “body will make the final decision in November.”
She has embraced the challenges – the roller-coaster freshman year, stem cell research study and surgery, as well as the summer of rehab back home – and no matter where she finds herself this season, back on the court with her friends and teammates or at the end of the bench in street clothes, she’s ready to return to normalcy in Missoula.
“Just meeting new people and becoming your own person. There are a lot more things to do in Missoula (than Malta). I actually really enjoy it there. It’s always nice to come home, but I (did) miss it,” Stiles said.