Malta's Hailey Nicholson

Malta’s Hailey Nicholson, who will play for the Montana Lady Griz next season, will suit up for her home state in the Montana-Wyoming basketball series this weekend.

CASEY PAGE, Billings Gazette

The most fertile recruiting ground for the Lady Griz basketball program probably isn't where you'd think. It's not behemoth Billings West or any of the local Missoula schools right in the University of Montana's backyard.

Like the thousands of acres of wheat farms along Montana's Hi-Line, Malta also grows college basketball players.

The tiny town, which has shrunk below 2,000 in population in the past decades due to rural flight, has provided veteran coach Robin Selvig more ammunition than any other Montana high school. Recruit No. 7 Hailey Nicholson is making one last stop on the high school circuit, representing her state in Midland Roundtable Montana-Wyoming all-star basketball series this weekend, before donning the Maroon and Silver.

It's not just that Malta has produced bodies to hang jerseys on in Missoula. The Class B school has churned out both quantity and quality.

Three of the first six M'ettes to join the UM program now stand among the top 20 scorers in program history. Two were Big Sky Conference MVPs and one went on to play in the WNBA.

The extensive history is not lost on Nicholson, a 6-foot wing who helped guide Malta to the past two state championships.

"I'm pretty proud that I get to say I'm one of the seven (Malta products) that gets to play there," she said. "I've always admired their program. I think Robin is an awesome coach and I was really excited to get the opportunity to play under him. I've always wanted to play there."

So what the heck is in the water in Malta?

"I don't know; that's obviously a good run of players and coaches there," said Selvig, now bound for his 39th season leading the Lady Griz. "They've been very good to us. Seven is a lot."

Linda Mendel was the first, playing from 1985-90, before Selvig recruited three M'ettes who would each eventually score 1,000 points in Missoula. Greta (Koss) Buehler (1993-97), who played for the Utah Starzz in the WNBA's inaugural season in 1997, and Skyla Sisco (1994-98) each won league MVPs. Linda Cummings (1996-2000) gave it a run as well.

Buehler, a former girls' basketball coach at West, was announced last month as a class of 2017 inductee to the Montana Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame.

"Little girls in Malta grow up wanting to be (basketball) players, but I think it takes a certain ability to be a Division I player," Selvig said. "That's the rare thing. They've all been great and great people."

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It's been more than a decade since the last Malta products graced the program with Cheryl Keller (1998-2002) and Juliann Keller (2001-05) long departed. Nicholson has a shot to become the next great in that sorority.

Her size made her a matchup nightmare for Malta. She was the team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer in each of the past three seasons. She scored 11.7 points per game with 6.3 rebounds as a junior and upped those numbers to 14.2 and 7.6, respectively, this past winter.

The M'ettes posted a fierce 74-2 record over those three years.

"She can play under the basket; she can float outside and make 3-pointers or jump shots; she can handle the ball pretty well," said Malta coach Nate Hammond. "She's got tremendous body control for a 6-foot kid."

Selvig agreed.

"I like her versatility," he said. "She can pass, she can jump up and shoot over people. I could see her doing a lot of different things in her college career."

Before that Nicholson will suit up with some of the best graduated seniors from around the state to take on the girls from Wyoming. The action begins Friday when the Treasure Staters travel to Sheridan, Wyoming. The girls' game tips at 5:30 p.m. with the boys to follow.

The Wyoming players return the favor Saturday night at Billings' Rocky Mountain College. The games start at the same times.

It's the first chance for Nicholson to play with fellow Lady Griz signee Nora Klick of Great Falls High. The duo squared off at the Hi-Line Invitational Basketball Tournament back in March, but has never played for the same side.

Then it's a quick turnaround for Missoula on Sunday morning. Nicholson's high school teammates are attending a Lady Griz team camp this weekend in which she hopes to participate. It was at one of those camps in the past that Nicholson caught the eye of the UM coaching staff, prompting Selvig to offer the shooter a scholarship around this time a year ago.

There's plenty of talent still on the M'ettes for Selvig and his crew to mull over this year too, including senior-to-be and Montana's reigning Gatorade player of the year Sophia Stiles.

The Malta-to-Missoula pipeline may have more in store for the Lady Griz.

"I hope so," Nicholson said. "I would love to have some company over there."

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