Cate No. 1 on Big Sky’s “25 Greatest Athletes” List

By JOEL CARLSON

Shannon Cate ranks No. 1 on the Big Sky Conference’s list of “25 Greatest Female Athletes,” but she needs some convincing.

Today she is more than two decades removed from her record-setting playing career at Montana, and with 22 years as an assistant on Robin Selvig’s coaching staff, she has been involved in more success — nearly 600 wins and 16 NCAA tournaments in all — than should really be allowed.

Asked to comment on being named the top athlete in Big Sky history, she first insists that her office door be closed, lest someone hear her talking about herself. It’s the same kind of humbleness that weaves through all the top athletes on the list. Me? One of the top athletes? There must be a mistake.

“It’s unbelievable company to be associated with for sure. There have been so many amazing athletes on this list who have done some phenomenal things,” says Cate, now Shannon Schweyen.

Shannon Cate“I’m honored for my program and the University of Montana, but I don’t consider myself to be a great athlete. I was a basketballplayer.”

Actually, I’m going to need some convincing myself.

Because I watched the video of Northern Arizona’s Johanna Nilsson, ranked No. 2 on the list, winning the 2005 NCAA cross country championship. She made it look like she was competing against the NAU student body, not the best collegiate distance runners in the nation.

Between her and the No. 3 athlete on the list, Nilsson’s sister Ida, they won six national championships — from cross country in the fall to the mile at the NCAA indoor championships to the outdoor steeplechase — and 23 Big Sky Conference championships.

No. 4, Ellie Rudy of Montana State? She went to eight indoor and outdoor Big Sky track and field championships and won eight pole vault titles. She won a pair of national championships as well to bolster her bona fides.

So how do you work a basketball player into the argument of best athlete? How do you factor in the role of teammates when the others competed in their events as individuals, them against the field, and came out as the best in the country?

Cate, in her athletic prime, wouldn’t have finished within a zip code of the Nilssons in a running race, and she likely would have impaled herself or an innocent official had she attempted the pole vault.

But how would the Nilssons or Rudy have fared on the basketball court, where an athlete needs to run and jump while incorporating hand-eye coordination, timing and sense of game, all within the framework of playing as a member of a team?

Cate is the best women’s basketball player the Big Sky Conference has seen. There is not much debating that. But should she be considered the best athlete?

To find the answer, I set off on a journey of discovery. It wasn’t a long walk, just through the hallways of Montana’s athletics offices. The argument was presented to coaches of sports ranging from tennis to soccer, from track and field to basketball.

Shannon Cate 5They all came at the issue from a different angle, but in the end they all agreed: Shannon Cate is the best athlete in Big Sky Conference history. But justbarely.

Brian Schweyen has a unique perspective on the matter. He is the head coach of the Griz track and field program. He is also married to the former Shannon Cate, which might make him appear biased, but if he didn’t think his wife deserves to be No. 1 on this list, he would say so.

He breaks it down like a track and field coach, with a surprising opening salvo.
“To be a track champion does not take athleticism, at least as I define it,” he claims. “What makes an athlete is the circle of motion. Linear, lateral, vertical. That’s how you define an athlete. When someone says, ‘Wow, that person is athletic,’ it usually means they are going linearly, laterally and vertically.

“In track and field it’s mostly straight-ahead linear. In basketball you need them all, and on top of that you have to have the fine-motor skills.”

So that’s one way to attack the argument, but it feels so academic and prosaic. What we need is something based more on the eye test. Forget planes of motion. Which of those athletes produced goose-bump moments?

Griz men’s tennis coach Kris Nord has been going to Montana men’s basketball games since the early 1960s, since the age of four, when his dad, Ron, then the Griz head coach, let his son sit on the bench.

Nord, whose fan experience mostly matches the 50-year history of the Big Sky, has seen just about every men’s team since and most of the women’s. And he’s never witnessed anything like he did in March 1991, when the Lady Griz hosted Iowa in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Shannon Cate 3“I remember how big and athletic Iowa was and how focused they were on shutting Shannon down,” Nord says, the memories still clear more than 22 years later. “And how amazing it was that they couldn’t doit.”

Montana lost 64-53, but Cate had 36 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks. She shot 16 for 30. The rest of the team: 5 for 28.

“She did pretty much what she wanted to do,” Nord continues. “Even though Iowa’s focus was to take her out of the game, they couldn’t do it.

“Given the magnitude of the game and the pressure that was on her, I’d put that right at the top of the performances I’ve watched in that fieldhouse.”

Montana women’s basketball coach Robin Selvig points not to a single game but to Cate’s versatility. And that might finally be the thing that breaks this argument open, because it’s what the track and field athletes are mostly lacking.
Cate finished her career with 2,172 points and 878 rebounds. When her last game had been played, she ranked No. 1 in Big Sky history in scoring, No. 3 in rebounding and No. 6 in assists. Oh, and she also was top 10 in steals and blocks and is still the top 3-point shooter, at 43.9 percent, in league history.

And to what position on the floor do those numbers point? Shooting guard, small forward, power forward? Cate’s talent allowed them to all overlap.

When Lady Griz point guard Vicky Austin went down with a knee injury leading up to Montana’s season opener against Washington in 1989-90, Cate’s sophomore season, Selvig gave the assignment to Cate. So now she’s a point guard too?

The prospect reduced Cate to tears, but Selvig was unmoved and stuck to his plan. “I don’t know if it was fair to ask her to do that, but it was best for the team.”

Which would be like asking the Nilssons to line up for the 100-meter dash, right? Same court, totally different position. Same track, totally different event.

Shannon Cate 4The result? Cate dished out a then Montana-record 11assists.

She did it inside, with her back to the basket. She did it outside, where she shot 40 percent or better from 3-point range all four years of her career.

“She was a complete player who could play from the one to the four,” Selvig said. “She could handle, she could pass, she could rebound, she could score in different ways. And she was a great competitor.

“She possessed all the qualities you want in a player, and she rose to the occasion in our biggest games.”

And even with all that evidence, the coaches who were questioned admitted to the difficulty of choosing the top athlete from the short list.

For all of them, the difference-maker came down to a single factor: Cate’s inclusion on the 10-player Kodak All-America team her senior season of 1991-92, which was No. 3 on the Big Sky’s “25 Greatest Moments” list.
Because when you get down to comparing the very best athletes from apples and oranges sports from two and a half decades, there has to be something that separates them.

“Will there be more national champions from the Big Sky Conference in track and field? Absolutely,” says Brian Schweyen. “But there will never be another first-team All-American. If that’s not on her resume, then Shannon is probably not atop this list.”

And that All-America award never would have happened unless three things occurred.

The first was her performance against Iowa at the end of Cate’s junior season. It wasn’t so much that it was an NCAA game against a higher-seeded team than it was the fact that it was Vivian Stringer who was coaching Iowa at the time.

Now at Rutgers, Stringer was on the 10-member Kodak selection committee the following season. Cate had torched Stringer’s team 12 months earlier, but coaches have long, long, long memories.

Shannon Cate SchweyenBut that alone wouldn’t have been enough. Cate needed some postseason success on herresume.

That came the next year, Cate’s senior season, when Montana, the No. 11 seed, traveled to Madison to face No. 6 Wisconsin in the 1992 NCAA tournament.

Cate had 34 points on 15-of-25 shooting and 11 rebounds against the Badgers, as the Lady Griz won their fourth tournament game in program history, their first on the road.

It was the kind of performance that left Wisconsin coach Mary Murphy searching for answers, even after the game was over.

“She’s so complete, she’s just amazing to me,” she said of Cate. “She’s like watching a basketball clinic.

“I tried everything possible I could think of to stop her, but you throw one thing at her and she’s got another move to throw against you.”

The third: Stringer and Weber State coach Carla Taylor filling two of the nine district representative seats on the Kodak All-America selection committee in 1992. The Wisconsin game gave Taylor the final piece of evidence she needed to make Cate’s case.

Not that Taylor needed any more convincing. She began her coaching career at Weber State the same year Cate was a freshman at Montana, and the Wildcats went 0-9 over four years against Cate-led teams.

In one of those losses, Cate dropped 41 points on Weber State, a total still tied for the most points in Big Sky history.

“The No. 1 thing you remember about Shannon is that she was probably one of the most fierce competitors I ever coached against,” says Taylor.
 

“At the same time she was so skilled and so basketball savvy. She was phenomenal, but she never forced things. She just took what came to her. You’d make a game plan to mix things up, but she would turn it around and exploit you.”

The 10-member selection committee that year — one representative from nine districts, plus the committee chair — was built in Cate’s favor. At least two coaches had first-hand experience facing Cate.

“Because I’d seen her for four years, it wasn’t hard for me to sell. But it was hard for me to get them to understand how good Shannon was,” Taylor says. “I felt like I was an attorney fighting for my client. The problem was there were all the top conferences represented in the room.

“Vivian Stringer was on the committee, so it helped having her as an advocate as well. And it helped that Montana had had success. A lot of the discussion in those meetings was, did that player help make their team more successful going to the next level and the next level? Shannon had that ability.”

The committee voted Cate one of the 10 best basketball players in the nation that season. And two decades later their decision helped Cate be voted the top athlete in Big Sky history.
 

But she still needs convincing.

“What those (track and field) girls did individually was extremely impressive. What they did to be the best in their sport in the entire country solidifies their accomplishments,” she says.

“And that’s where I struggle winning this and what makes it difficult for me to grasp. Basketball is a team sport, and there are so many other people who are involved in your success. I find it difficult to understand how you single out one person off a team.”

Because that’s how this works. After 25 years of Big Sky Conference women’s sports, somebody had to be singled out. The voters have spoken, and they’ve declared Cate the best of the best, regardless of sport.

At least until 2039 when the 50-year list comes out, and we can do this all over again.

Shannon Cate Schweyen 3
Montana Sports Information