MISSOULA — In six short weeks, Mike Petrino has taken the Montana women's basketball program to a place it's never been.
Coined as an interim coach, there's nothing about Petrino's moves that seem temporary. Montana athletic director Kent Haslam says he'll conduct a national search for a head coach next spring, but he may not have to look farther than down the hall if Petrino's plan takes shape.
"I've gotten so many nice emails from people that want to support the program," said Petrino, who served as a Lady Griz assistant coach the past four seasons. "Dozens of Lady Griz players and fans — it's just nice people are taking time to do that."
Petrino may not be proven when it comes to head coaching, but he's proven himself to be an effective recruiter. That's been the main focus for he and his staff since early April, stretching the boundaries of what predecessors Shannon Schweyen and Robin Selvig favored when it came to courting JUCO and DI international transfers.
"You have to explore all options," Petrino said. "Our league has had kids that have come from the junior college route and from the international route. This is something that's not new.
"The game is global. You exhaust all resources. We have great things here, positive things about Missoula and the University of Montana's programs. It's just a matter of exhausting those resources."
Last week, Petrino formally announced three college veterans would be joining his team. The trio includes Hannah Thurmon, a 6-foot-1 forward who spent two years at Three Rivers College in Missouri, Lauren Mills, a 6-2 center who will transfer in from Iowa State, and Nyah Morris-Nelson, a 6-0 shooting guard who spent last season at Iowa Western, a junior college in Council Bluffs.
Mills and Morris-Nelson are both from Australia. Morris-Nelson will be a junior and eligible to play immediately. Mills will have to sit out the 2020-21 season. She will then have one year of eligibility remaining.
They will be the first international scholarship players in program history.
"We needed balance on our roster," Petrino said. "We have five incoming freshmen and it would have been easy to go and sign more freshmen. But then now you're looking at seven or more.
"Now we have a larger junior class and freshman class. That's more manageable. We explored grad transfers but we couldn't find the right ones."
Petrino will return three starters from 2019-20 in guards Sophia Stiles and Madi Schoening and forward Abby Anderson. Stiles and Anderson should be even better than last winter after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Petrino uses the word "fluid" to describe his roster because he's still involved in talks with some of last season's team members. As of Monday afternoon, he was hopeful that everyone who had eligibility remaining after the 2019-20 campaign, with the exceptions of Jamie Pickens and Gabi Harrington, will return.
That's good news for Lady Griz fans. But one burning question remains: Will those fans, who love to cheer for Montana-raised players, embrace athletes from Australia and Missouri?
"We all want the same result, right?" Petrino said, hinting that it's success that puts fans in the seats. "We're not going to neglect an option because they're not from in-state. And the kids in Montana, they're not just staying in state, they're going out.
"If they're going out, then you have to look out. You have to adapt. I learned this through other places. The key is finding the right ones. For us, in the last month the biggest challenge was all the obstacles we have in the sense of you couldn't go out and see kids or bring kids in. You have to find creative ways to bring Montana to them, which we did."
Team chemistry has been an issue for Montana the past few seasons. Petrino and his staff of Jordan Sullivan, Nathan Covill and newly-promoted assistant Jace Henderson — Henderson was a grad assistant last year — intend to tackle the issue head on.
"Every coach is dealing with chemistry issues," he said. "The longer I'm in it, the more I believe chemistry is the X Factor.
"Chemistry either helps a team overachieve or underachieve. Getting people to buy into a group is more challenging than ever. It would be a worry even if we had everyone coming back. Chemistry would still be an important issue."
Beyond team chemistry, each Lady Griz is going to have to believe in what Petrino and his staff are doing. It's easier than ever now to leave a program with the NCAA transfer portal. It's also harder than ever to keep players around when they're unhappy with their playing time.
The portal is hurting almost every women's basketball program in the Big Sky Conference and it's not going away.
"It just comes down to whether the coach and player can build trust to last through the good times and challenging times," Petrino said. "We all need discipline and structure in our lives. It's just where is it coming from and are we following the people providing it?
"There's no way I can sit here and say every single kid on next year's team will be happy. No way. The challenge in front of us is how are we going to stick together?"
One thing is for certain: No one is going to outwork Petrino.
Whether that translates into wins and fans in the seats, no one knows for certain. But the future is looking a little brighter.
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 email@example.com.
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