BILLINGS — The six Rocky Mountain College women’s basketball players that faced punishment for sitting out in support of coach Wes Keller during his recent suspension have been afforded an opportunity to return to the team.
It was a tumultuous month for the program, but RMC president Bob Wilmouth has conveyed his hope that the process of healing has begun.
Wilmouth met with the six players and their parents on Wednesday, and stated in a school-issued press release on Thursday that a pathway for them to rejoin the program has been identified.
“We had a productive conversation and were able to discuss their concerns and hopefully clarify any misunderstandings,” Wilmouth’s statement read. “Through this conversation, along with Coach Keller and our athletics administration, we have identified a path to bring the team back together, allow them to heal, and ultimately find success.”
The players — senior Izzy Spruit, juniors Kloie Thatcher, Shauna Bribiescas, Adonica Baca-Martinez, Katelyn Ostrowski and sophomore Mackenzie Dethman — were originally told by Rocky’s administration that because of their decision to remove themselves from team activities that their standing with the program wouldn’t be evaluated until after the 2021 season had ended.
Initially, Keller was notified that he’d been placed on paid administrative leave prior to a practice on Feb. 1. It was the result, sources said at the time, of complaints that surfaced within another faction of the team over what was perceived as an overly aggressive coaching style.
The six players then opted out of team activities as a show of solidarity with Keller, whose suspension, Spruit said, came “completely out of nowhere” and “was completely unfair.”
Keller was absent for 17 days. And though it's not yet clear what specific outcomes resulted from the school's investigation into his methods, he ultimately wasn’t disciplined. Keller was reinstated last week after what Rocky said was a comprehensive review of the program.
During Keller’s hiatus — which was accompanied by two forfeits and four cancellations — assistant coaches Brett Morehouse and Markaela Francis were given the reins.
Morehouse served as interim head coach during two crosstown games against Montana State Billings. Keller returned as head coach for two home games against Providence last weekend.
The six players, however, remained in limbo and, according to Spruit, were not allowed to return to the team, or watch games and/or observe practices inside Rocky’s Fortin Center. Their future with the program seemed uncertain.
Spruit said the players wrote a letter to Rocky’s administration expressing their concerns not long after Keller’s suspension took effect. The written reply, which was obtained by The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com, stated that the school had begun an investigation and that it appreciated their correspondence, but that the players had “an obligation to participate in basketball related activities” and that “the institution has made the determination that we will be moving forward with those student-athletes that participate in team activities, practices, and games.”
Rocky had previously declined to comment publicly on the situation, but Wilmouth’s statement on Thursday was relatively detailed.
Wilmouth stated in the release that the six players “are a wonderful group of students and I am proud of their passion and ability to articulate their position.”
Wilmouth also said the reason for Keller’s leave of absence was necessitated by Rocky’s cautious approach to addressing the apprehension that raised within the team about its coach.
“As was formerly reported, concerns against Coach Keller were brought to our attention regarding his coaching style. It is the responsibility of Rocky Mountain College to thoroughly assess any credible concerns regarding student well-being,” the statement read.
“While these concerns were evaluated, out of an abundance of caution, Coach Keller was placed on paid administrative leave. Coach Keller received no disciplinary actions as a result of these concerns, during or after his administrative leave. After concluding a comprehensive review of the women’s basketball program, Coach Keller resumed his duties with the full support of the Rocky Mountain College administration.”
Addressing the misunderstandings to which he previously alluded in the statement, Wilmouth said he is “insisting that an emphasis is placed on improving communication between students, coaches and administration.”
Rocky's season came to an end Thursday on the road in the first round of the Frontier Conference playoffs with an 82-41 loss. Spruit, Thatcher, Bribiescas, Ostrowski, Baca-Martinez and Dethman weren’t expected to make the trip.
Aside from Spruit, who has already said she will not return to the team because she is graduating this year, it is not yet known which players will rejoin the program for next season.
Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac