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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Steve Christilaw: Self-assured Barta charts her own course

My dad had a running joke as far back as I can remember. Whenever he’d pour someone a drink refill, usually of coffee, he would tell the recipient to “Say when.”

The gag was that you had to actually say the word “when.” If you said “that’s good” or any other phrase to cut off the pour, he’d keep on pouring.

Bad joke, I know. And it got old long before I did.

But it did instill in me an understanding that, when life comes pouring at you, you really need to know when to “say when.”

Last week Jill Barta said “when.”

The Gonzaga women’s basketball team’s leading scorer and the most valuable player in the West Coast Conference, the centerpiece of what many were looking at as a strong returning squad ready to defend their WCC title or battle for the Mountain West Conference title if the Zags opt to change affiliation, Barta announced that she was going to forgo her final season of eligibility in order to return to Montana and begin her post-basketball career.

If your first reaction was to question someone leaving the bright lights of the McCarthey Athletic Center for the Big Sky country, you definitely need to spend more time in Montana. Or at least hang around with more folks from there.

Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote about “Sweet Home Alabama” and Little Texas wrote about how “God Blessed Texas.” Montanans don’t feel the need to interfere with the natural, Montana song you hear as the Rocky Mountain wind caresses the trees every evening.

But leaving a stellar career as a Division I college basketball player, with a year still on the table, is something new. We’re used to men’s basketball players leaving school early for the NBA, but not women.

The typical trade off is this: If they want to give me another year, I’ll take it and start work on an advanced degree. Or a second major.

But Barta isn’t your typical player. This came as a surprise, to be sure.

But it did not come as a shock.

Barta is one of the most self-contained people you will ever meet – and I mean that in the most positive way possible. It’s one of the first things you notice about her, and it’s something I liked about her from the time I first met her.

Maybe it’s something she learned growing up in Fairfield, Montana.

The Montana girls I know have a tough, inner strength and a sense of direction that keeps them on course. They do not suffer fools gladly, nor do they have a need to be constantly reassured about their own ability. Accolades are fine and good, of course, but they are the colored sprinkles on a cake of their own baking.

In that regard, Barta is a Montana girl through and through.

If she isn’t the finest women’s college basketball player ever to come out of the state of Montana, and I would argue that she is, she is without doubt on the short list for the debate over who is. You don’t get to that point without having a burning love for the game and you definitely don’t get there without putting in countless hours of practice honing your skills to a fine edge.

On the court Barta wears a striking game face that betrays nothing. Knock down a 3 or turn the ball over, her face betrays none of what’s going on behind her steely gaze.

After a game she’s quite personable. She’ll never drown you in verbage – she is a woman of few words. But what she says is well worth listening to. In fact, that first few times I interviewed her, she apologized for not being a better quote. She wasn’t a bad quote – I’ve interviewed lots of players who used many, many more words and never said anything as to the point as Barta invariably did.

She was just a woman of few words. But they were good words.

Barta is exceptionally confident in her own skin. You saw it in her eyes right away. She was always solidly in control of who she was and where she was going. You could tell that she kept her own counsel and that it would always serve her well.

It showed on the court. Her game is constructed the same way as her psyche. Strong, agile and determined – she defies you to put her in a category. At 6-foot-3 she could play anywhere and excel.

This time her own counsel is guiding her in an unexpected direction.

Except that this unexpected direction is perfectly in tune with who sheis and where she has always been headed.

Barta has her degree in special education in hand as she heads home to Montana to follow her dream of being a teacher. She has professed her love of working with the Special Olympics, and I have no doubt she will immerse herself in working with special-needs children in her home state.

It’s clear that establishing her career is paramount to her.

And I will not be surprised in the slightest to see Barta return to the McCarthey Athletic Center someday as the head coach of a Montana college women’s basketball program.

I wish her well. And I thank her for an outstanding college career.