College hoops: Zias hope to blend quickly

ENMU coach Dan Buzard returns this season after taking a year off to deal while recovering from a cancerous brain tumor. (Freedom Newspapers: Kevin Wilson)

By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer

One of the positives of playing people better than you in preseason is finding out the areas where you need improvement.

In an exhibition game at Division I Texas-El Paso on Sunday, the host Miners served that purpose for the Eastern New Mexico University women’s team.

“We learned that we need work on transition defense, rebounding, overall defense and execution on offense — pretty much everything,” Zias coach Dan Buzard said of the 96-66 loss. “They showed us what we need to work on.”
Of course, not everyone on the schedule will have the talent of a competitive Division I program like UTEP. Still, Buzard hopes the Zias make quick progress with their season opener looming Tuesday at Western New Mexico.

“We’re still trying to get our people together and work our (junior college transfers) kids in with the people we have back,” said Buzard, returning as head coach after missing the 2004-05 season due to a cancerous brain tumor.

“Getting everyone to do the little things is an important start for us.”

The Zias, who went 13-14 (7-7 Lone Star Conference South Division) last season under interim head coach Dustin Klafka, return full-time starters in 5-7 junior point guard Heather Brown of Hereford (11.6 ppg, 85 assists) and 6-foot post Tiana Bryant of Roswell (10.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg), and a part-time starter in 6-0 senior posts Riikka Lehtonen of Finland (4.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg).

Also back is Texico junior Elizabeth Richards, a 5-11 forward who sat out last season after averaging 11 points and nearly seven rebounds while starting 54 of 55 games in her first two years at ENMU.

Richards, who led Texico to three consecutive state titles from 2000-02, said she’s anxious to get back in the swing.
“We’re a whole new team; we’re still trying to blend, but I think we’re going to be OK,” she said. “We have some good girls on the team, and some good leaders.

“I’ve had more fun playing this year than I have in a while. I don’t really feel like I’ve been out of it.”

Richards, who went 10-for-10 from the line and scored 14 points at UTEP, said the Miners were a tougher team than when she faced them two years ago.

“We do have some young girls on the team,” she said. “It’s hard to go into your first game as a freshman and you’re playing a Division I team.”

Portales sophomore Erika Cook, a 5-4 wing player, also started nine games last year, seeing her playing time jump dramatically after a season-ending injury to senior Laci Lee just before Christmas. Cook averaged around 4 1/2 points in 15 games.

“She made a lot of strides in the summer to improve her game,” Buzard said.

Bryant, Brown and Richards are pretty well set as starters, with the other spots up for grabs.

Freshmen Lindsay Wood of Muleshoe and Rosalyn Elliott of Moriarty are backups for Brown, while junior Missy Kirkland of Arlington, Texas, Ashley Sutton of Italy, Texas, and Megan Ratliff of Farmington — all juco transfers — could help at either guard position. Laura Vote, a freshman from Kingwood, Texas, provides the Zias with a 3-point threat.

Lehtonen could get a starting nod inside, Buzard said, while other post players looking for playing time are sophomore Brittney Gillespie of Aztec and junior Rochelle Vance of Duncanville, Texas, another juco transfer.

Even though ENMU was tabbed for sixth place in the eight-team South in preseason, Richards said she’s ready for the challenge. Abilene Christian is the South’s preseason favorite.

“I think we’re going to do OK,” she said. “Of course, we have stuff we need to work on, but every team does.

“Our goal is a Lone Star Conference championship; hopefully, people are underestimating us. We’re a little small, but we’re pretty athletic and pretty quick.”

Buzard said he’s not uncomfortable with the sixth-place pick. ENMU just missed making the LSC tournament last season, losing out on a tiebreaker with Texas A&M-Commerce for the South’s fourth and final berth.

“I expect us to be fighting for a playoff spot,” Buzard said. “I think we’ll be in the middle of it.”