Hanser and Homegrown 'Jackets Head into West Regional
MSUB senior Austin Hanser has found her own on a team of 15 Montana natives, who have developed into lifelong friends.
MSUB senior Austin Hanser has found her own on a team of 15 Montana natives, who have developed into lifelong friends.
Hanser has seen action in all 30 of MSUB's games this season, starting 10 and averaging 4.3 points per contest.
Hanser has seen action in all 30 of MSUB's games this season, starting 10 and averaging 4.3 points per contest.

Thursday, March 13, 2014
by Evan O'Kelly, Media Relations Assistant

POMONA, Calif. – The first time Austin Hanser and Bobbi Knudsen met was their senior year of high school, when Hanser’s Central Catholic Rams and Knudsen’s Malta High M-Ettes squared off in a late season game during the 2010 season. “That was the first time I had heard of her, and I think we had one of the most high-scoring games ever, around 99-96,” Hanser recalled of the players’ debut encounter.

Now, both are seniors on Montana State Billings’ women’s basketball team, which earned the No. 2 overall seed in the 2014 NCAA West Regional tournament and will take on No. 7 seed Academy of Art on Friday at 2:30 p.m. Pacific time.

The Yellowjackets have had one of the best seasons in program history, winning the 2013-14 Great Northwest Athletic Conference regular-season title and posting a perfect 15-0 record at home inside Alterowitz Gym. MSUB took home four of the top conference awards, including Coach of the Year Kevin Woodin, Player of the Year in Knudsen, Defensive Player of the Year Janiel Olson, and Newcomer of the Year Chelsea Banis.

In many ways, the team’s on-court success and awards are a result of its personality and the relationships the players have fostered with one another.

For starters, every player on MSUB’s roster hails from Montana, and despite a significant cast of newcomers, the team has clicked since the first day of the season. 

Hanser is one of those who is relatively new to the team, as she transferred to MSUB after spending two years at Rocky Mountain College. Having grown up and spent her whole life in Billings, MSUB had been on Hanser’s map early on in her college search.

“Coach Woodin had talked to me throughout my senior year, and it was between here and Rocky Mountain,” Hanser remembered about her college decision. “I decided to go to Rocky for two years, and they offered me a full-ride scholarship.”

It wasn’t until her senior year at Central that Hanser fully committed to basketball as the sport she wanted to pursue, as she was also a standout on the soccer field. “I thought I was going to play soccer until December of my senior year,” Hanser said. “I definitely knew I didn’t want to go far from home, and once basketball season started I realized that’s what I wanted to play.”

Hanser had three different basketball coaches in four years during high school, and at times the spark that had made the game her passion wavered. “My senior year starting off with the preseason was a blast and I remember having fun with the sport again,” Hanser recalled about the late rekindling of her love for the game. “I felt like this is what I love to do again, and I knew that if I worked hard I could be good enough to play.”

While a fresh start to her senior season of high school had brought basketball to life again for Hanser, her early inspirations to play the game lay within her family.

“My whole family is passionate about sports, and my mom’s dad was a major influence in terms of basketball because he coached high school ball when my mom was growing up,” Hanser said about her grandfather Ted Rapstad. “My mom’s mother battled cancer for six or seven years and I always admired her strength throughout that. She was always able to look up and stay positive, and it taught me to do the same.” 

Now in her second season as a Yellowjacket, Hanser admits that while MSUB is always where she wanted to go, the transition at first was difficult for her. “Switching schools and trying to find my role on a new team was pretty tough,” Hanser said. “In high school and at Rocky I was always a starter and a high scorer, but when I came here it was hard because I didn’t know where my niche was at first during my junior year.”

As Hanser adapted to her new role on the team, MSUB was simultaneously putting the building blocks in place to develop a championship-caliber squad for the 2013-14 season. One of the keys to realizing the goal of winning a GNAC title was the skill set that Hanser possessed, and getting her to buy into the different ways in which she could contribute. 

“This year before the season, I talked to my coaches and they kept telling me that my defense always provided a spark,” Hanser said about her preparations for her senior season. “When I started to focus on that, I just let the offensive side come to me, and it has really helped me play better overall.”

Hanser has played in all 57 of the Yellowjackets’ games over the last two seasons, including 30 as a senior this year. She has been a key figure on the team with MSUB’s second-most assists (49) and third-most steals (20).

Most recently, she has done something she has grown used to doing throughout her career and adapted to a new role on the team. Hanser has started six of MSUB’s last eight games, stepping up when her team has needed her the most. 

“I haven’t been worried as much about scoring as I used to be, it’s more about getting our team pumped up on defense,” Hanser said regarding her recent spike in playing time. “It really took most of my junior year to get used to my role, but starting off this season I felt much better and like I was doing well with it.”

While Hanser has fully settled into her role and embraced her importance to the team, part of the reason she has been able to do so has been the character of the players around her. “I truly have 15 lifelong friends, and I don’t feel like I have had that on any other team before,” Hanser said regarding her family of teammates this season. “It has to do with our personalities, and there isn’t one person that clashes with the team. We are all very likeable.” 

Hanser agrees that a big part of the team’s chemistry has been their homegrown roots, as every one of them has grown up around the Montana culture of basketball. “That definitely plays a huge role,” Hanser said regarding the commonality in the team’s foundation. “It is certainly one thing that pulls us all together.”

From 16-hour bus rides to defending their home court better than any other GNAC team, MSUB is having one of the best seasons in program history. But a first-round exit in last weekend’s GNAC Championships was a tough pill to swallow for Hanser and the Yellowjackets.

“As a whole we were disappointed,” Hanser said regarding the 85-74 loss to Simon Fraser last Friday. “We felt like we should’ve played much better and gotten further than we did.”

The loss to the Clan has motivated the ‘Jackets to prove they are still one of the best teams in the West, as MSUB has been preparing for Friday’s game against the Academy of Art with a newfound drive. 

“This week at practice we have been really focusing and telling ourselves that we are good and that we deserve to be here,” said Hanser. “We didn’t want to come down here just to lose and go home, we want another chance to show how good we are.”

As Hanser’s basketball career comes to a close following the 2013-14 season, it is fitting that she will finish her career on the floor with those she has grown the closest to. “This season itself has been the most memorable of my career, and we have gone so many cool places and achieved so much,” Hanser said. “At the end of the day what will really be remembered are the moments we have all shared together, and that is what is most rewarding.”

For more information on the 2014 NCAA West Regional Tournament, including how to watch Friday's game live online, visit the "related links" section of this article.