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The growing pains are fairly obvious in Brittney Ezell’s first season as East Tennessee State’s women’s basketball coach.
Coming off consecutive eight-win campaigns, the Lady Bucs are 5-11 and have lost four in a row heading into tonight’s home contest against Kennesaw State. At 1-4 in the Atlantic Sun Conference, they are tied for eighth in the standings.
“This is the fourth program I’ve taken over that was in need,” Ezell said Wednesday. “Every one has had unique circumstances, but the foundation with this one is there. Once the kids completely buy in and we mix the old with the new, I think we’ll be OK.”
The Lady Bucs are coming off a 63-62 home loss to USC Upstate on Sunday in which Alex Stanford tossed in a game-winning layup with two seconds left. Their three previous losses were all by double digits, including a 91-62 blowout at Florida Gulf Coast.
The team has just one senior in uniform, guard Shawn Randall.
“The common theme is how do we keep from beating ourselves,” said Ezell. “We’ve had a lot of self-inflicted wounds — missing free throws, turnovers, just a lack of execution. It’s not necessarily what opponents are doing to us.
“The kids trust us to put them in positions to win; they understand what we’re going through. It’s just a change.”
The Lady Bucs will again be without leading scorer Cara Bowling tonight. The junior guard from Elizabethton has a hip injury that kept her out of the Upstate game.
“She’s been battling it all year,” said Ezell. “She’s more disappointed than anyone not to be out there.”
Bowling is averaging 12.7 points a game and has made 30 3-pointers.
Forward Serena Clark is expected to play against Kennesaw State (4-13, 2-4) despite being slowed by a sprained ankle. The 6-2 junior is having an outstanding season, averaging a double-double of 11.2 points and 10.6 rebounds.
“It’s surprising because she’s been playing through this injury,” said Ezell. “Serena is not a natural wing player, but she has really blossomed in our system.”
The Bucs have been without senior forward Destiny Mitchell all season. She underwent knee surgery on Jan. 13 and is redshirting.
Ezell hopes Mitchell, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder the last two years, is able to practice again before the season is out.
George Watts hasn’t been organizing the Niswonger Invitational for long, but he has developed an affinity for the venerable track and field meet in the Dome.
“I certainly hope we can keep it going,” said Watts, who succeeded the meet’s founder, Dave Walker, as director of ETSU’s track and cross country programs in August 2012. “We want to improve on it in terms of adding more teams to the meet, and hopefully we can pick three or four events where we have more of an elite-type field.
“It’s a little tougher now because we have more track meets to compete against. The Dome used to be one of the few indoor facilities in the Southeast, and coach Walker did an unbelievable job of making it an elite meet.”
Walker died on Jan. 11 at age 82.
The Niswonger completed its 36th running last weekend, with several ETSU athletes turning in top-three performances.
On the women’s side, Jessica Palmer won the 5,000 and Dede Edgecombe won the 60 hurdles.
Among the men, Simeon Roberts won the mile in his section, and joined with Thomas Miller, Angus Baldwin and Desmond Pierce to capture the distance medley relay.
“In terms of our team, I felt like we competed hard, which showed in the wins we had and the top-three finishes,” said Watts. “We had a lot of kids with personal bests. The message we sent to them going into the meet was simply try to get better, be as competitive as you can be.”
ETSU returns to action Jan. 31 in Winston-Salem, N.C. The Atlantic Sun Conference indoor championships will be run there Feb. 21-22.
The men’s tennis team has some precocious newcomers, and none more so than Diego Nunez.
The freshman from Monterrey, Mexico flashed his potential by defeating Mikelis Libietis of Tennessee, who was ranked No. 1 in the preseason, in a three-setter in Knoxville on Monday. Nunez rallied for a 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory at No. 2 singles.
“I think he believes he’s that good, and he obviously proved it,” said ETSU coach Yaser Zaatini. “That’s the first step.”
Asked about Nunez’s style, Zaatini chuckled.
“He’s the kamikaze type. He plays big,” he said. “I’m a little more conservative and patient and like to open the court up. This guy is bang, bang, bang — all power and strength.
“It was a great match to watch, bombs being served all over the place. But if you’re the coach, you’re pulling your hair out.”
The Bucs lost to the sixth-ranked Vols 5-2, but it was much tighter than the score suggests.
Senior Roger Ordeig also won a three-setter for the Bucs at No. 3 singles, defeating Bartosz Sawicki 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. Freshman Ismael Merino lost in three sets, 7-4 in a tiebreak, while David Biosca, another freshman, pushed All-American Hunter Reese at No. 1 before falling 6-4, 6-4.
“It was mighty close,” said Zaatini. “Back in 2004, we lost a 4-3 match against them, but this was the closest since then. We have a bunch of new kids, and if they come in with the right mind and copy some of the old blood, it could be a good combination.”
The Bucs play a couple of matches in Stillwater, Okla., this weekend. They face host Oklahoma State on Friday and Arkansas on Saturday.
Valentine’s Day is a good day for … baseball?
The Bucs actually start their season Feb. 14 in a home series against Longwood at Thomas Stadium. Weather permitting, of course, the teams will also play single games the next two days.
ETSU, the defending A-Sun champion, plays 12 of its first 15 games at home.
The softball season begins even earlier for ETSU.
The Bucs head to Nashville for the Music City Classic the second week of February. They will play Detroit and Butler on Feb. 8, and Tennessee State and Belmont the next day.