By Dave Wagner
On the eve of the start of the Lone Star Conference South Division women’s race, Eastern New Mexico University acting head coach Dustin Klafka said Monday that senior guard Laci Lee will miss the remainder of the season with a foot injury.
Lee, a four-year regular, has missed the team’s five games since the Christmas break. She was ENMU’s leading scorer last season (14.6 ppg) during a surprising run into title contention, and was averaging just under 11 points in the Zias’ first nine games this year.
Klafka, filling in with head coach Dan Buzard recovering from a cancerous brain tumor, said his squad will simply have to make adjustments as it prepares for Thursday’s South opener against Texas A&M-Commerce at Greyhound Arena. Without Lee, the Zias lost three games by a combined eight points and another in overtime before edging East Central 47-44 on Saturday at Ada, Okla.
“That makes it tough,” Klafka said of the injury. “We’re going to miss Laci, no doubt about that.
“We’re going to have to have some people step up for us, but our margin of error will be smaller.”
While his team’s work is cut out, Klafka said he expects the South race to be competitive again.
“I think it’s wide-open,” he said. “There are some very good basketball teams, but I still feel like it’s up in the air until someone wants to go get it.”
Angelo State (12-1) was the preseason favorite and is coming off a 7-0 sweep of the North in crossover games. But fifth-year coach Sally Walling Brooks, who earned her 100th victory with a 100-98, double-overtime win at Southwestern Oklahoma last week, insists it won’t be a cakewalk.
“It’s so hard to judge,” said Brooks, whose team finished in a three-way tie for second behind West Texas A&M last season and then won the conference postseason tournament. “You just have to wait and see.”
Others who have played well so far include WT (10-4), Abilene Christian (9-4) and Texas Woman’s (9-5).
Last year, four teams went into contention on the final weekend of the season and were matched up for the last two games. WT finished 11-3 and outlasted ASU, ACU and ENMU by one game.
“I think it’s well-balanced,” longtime WT coach Bob Schneider said. “There’s so much parity in both (divisions), but especially in the South.
“It could very well (be a four-team race again). It probably depends a lot on how teams play on the road.”
Texas Woman’s start qualifies as a surprise. The Pioneers, who are already 2-0 in the South after a sweep of division travel partner Texas A&M-Kingsville, haven’t had a winning season since 1989-90 and went just 26-80 over coach Devin Gabbard’s first four seasons.
Gabbard said in preseason, though, that his goal for this year’s squad is 17 or 18 wins.
“It’s never been done here,” he said. “(But) with the caliber of players we have, .500 is a low goal to set and I don’t want (the players) to be pleased with that.”
Angelo State rides the fortunes of 6-foot-3 senior center Natalja Tsurbakova, the South’s preseason player of the year. The Rambelles figure to get a test tonight when they travel to ACU.
“I’d say the one team I’m most surprised about is Abilene Christian, just because they lost so much (to graduation) last year,” Brooks said. “I definitely think they’re living up to expectations.
“West Texas is a always a tough team. They’re probably not playing as well as they’re capable, but there’s no doubt in my mind they’ll be ready for us.”
Schneider said he wouldn’t be surprised to see several teams battling it out at the end, including the Lady Buffaloes.
“It could very well be (a tight race),” he said. “It’ll probably depend a lot on how teams play on the road.
“It’s that time of year where we need to begin to do some things better. It’s really important to execute what you’re trying to do and improve in every game and every practice.”