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Zias enter season with higher expectations

PORTALES — Picked to finish last in the Lone Star Conference South Division a year ago, the Eastern New Mexico University women’s basketball team surprised the experts by staying in title contention until the final weekend of the season.

This year the Zias won’t slip up on anybody, but they enter the season with high expectations despite a cancerous brain tumor which has sidelined third-year coach Dan Buzard for the time being.

Assistant coach Dustin Klafka has stepped in to lead the team while longtime Zias coach Wayne Moore, who retired in 2002 after 22 seasons at the helm, has returned to serve as his assistant.

The Zias have one exhibition game under their belt, a 91-72 loss at Division I Texas-El Paso last Sunday.

“I think we snuck up on a lot of people last year,” Klafka said. “I think we snuck up on UTEP (in an exhibition last season), but they were definitely ready for us this time.

“Our biggest hurdle is that everything’s new to us this year. We’ve got a lot of new kids, but I think the kids have put forth the effort to make the adjustments. It’s just going to take us a little time.”

ENMU (16-12, 10-4 South last season) opens the 2004-05 campaign with a 6 p.m. game on Monday night against Fort Lewis at Greyhound Arena.

The Zias were picked third in this year’s LSC South poll, behind Angelo State and defending division champion West Texas A&M.

“I think that’s fair,” said senior guard Laci Lee, a Portales High grad. “It’s a good spot for us. Coach has been telling us we have the potential and the talent to do well, and as long as we come together I think we will.”

Six of the Zias’ top nine players return from last year’s squad. Also back is 5-11 junior forward Tia Doss, who missed all of last season and most of her first year (2001-02) with knee injuries.

“Tia brings us a lot of athleticism in the post,” Klafka said. “She’s undersized, but has great speed and quickness. She’s going to have to give us a lot of good minutes.”

Lee, a fourth-year starter, heads up the list of returnees after averaging a team-best 14.6 points and grabbing seven rebounds a game in 2003-04. But she’s trying to recover from a broken bone in her foot suffered late last season which hasn’t completely healed and has slowed her conditioning.

“It’s been all right; I guess you do what you have to do,” she. “I think we’re going to do really well. Every day we’re getting better in practice.”

Lee said the team has had to adjust with Buzard unable to coach, although he has been able to attend some of the practices.

“We just want to do really well for coach Buzard,” she said. “You can tell there’s something missing.”

Sophomore guard Heather Brown (10.1 ppg) and senior post Loren Scarlett (8.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg) also return. Others who saw regular duty in reserve roles include senior forward-guard Mika Robertson, senior guard Casey Rodriguez and junior forward-post Tiana Bryant.

“Mika gives us a tremendous work ethic,” Klafka said. “This year she’ll be able to play more or a guard position, more her normal position, because we’ve added depth in the post.”

Klafka said the Zias should be stronger in the post area this year with the addition of 6-foot junior Riikka Lehtonen, a Finnish native who spent two seasons at Kilgore (Texas) College. Klafka said Lehtonen, believed to be ENMU’s first international player, is a strong player who moves well on the court.

Newcomers who should add depth are junior point guard Ashley Davidson and junior post Dynesha Johnson, both juco transfers, and freshman guard Erika Cook of Portales.