Sports

Anxious to start

Winthrop women's coach Bud Childers conducts practice Tuesday.
Winthrop women's coach Bud Childers conducts practice Tuesday.

You couldn't blame Bud Childers, Winthrop's women's basketball coach, for wanting last season to end.

You also couldn't blame him for wanting this season to hurry up and arrive, to give him and his players a chance to erase the memory of last year's perfect storm of disaster.

"The past six months have been the longest of my life," said Childers, who begins his fourth season at Winthrop. "I wanted to get back out there, and our players felt the same way.

"The players stuck around this summer for the first time. They reported in their best shape ever this fall. We're all ready."

After tying a school record for NCAA Division I wins (14) in 2005-06, the Lady Eagles were picked third in last year's Big South Conference preseason poll. Playing without a single upper classman and at times without a lot of purpose or intensity, the Lady Eagles limped through the season, finishing 2-12 in the league, 6-26 overall.

Not once did they win back-to-back games. They turned the ball over 661 times, an average of 20.6 per game. They shot 38 percent, 29 percent on 3-pointers.

They played like a team full of sophomores and freshman, which is exactly what they were. Childers didn't have a single senior or junior. His starting five were sophomores.

Talk about sophomoritis. It spread through the team like measles through a day care.

But the Lady Eagles aren't much for looking back at last year and wondering "what if." They'd rather just get on with this year.

"We're really not into making excuses," junior forward Ashley Fann said. "We had some problems, had some people playing out of position. We didn't adjust well to that. But we're trying to move on from that and just get ready for this season."

It's the kind of attitude that has Childers excited about the season, which opens Friday night. The Lady Eagles host North Texas State at 7 p.m., the first of three games in three days.

Last week Childers said he expected this to be a "breakthrough season" for his program, even though the Lady Eagles were picked fifth in the Big South's preseason poll.

"Preseason polls are for fans," Childers said. "The season standings are for teams and coaches. We were probably a tough team to pinpoint, because after last year, people probably don't know what to expect.

"Last year we were picked third, and obviously we were way over-considered."

This year, he thinks it might be the other way around.

"We were picked fifth, but I don't think people comprehend what we have going here," he said. "We feel like we're better than that."

But he said his team would take the pick "and run with it," hopefully to something much better.

The last two weeks of last season, things started to come around a little. The Lady Eagles won a couple of games, lost one game by five and another by nine.

The high water mark came in the opening round of the conference tournament, when they became the first No. 8 seed to knock off a No. 1 by beating regular season champion High Point 57-50. Fann had 16 points and eight rebounds, the kind of performance that was expected all season. She had 20 points and seven rebounds in the season-ending loss to eventual champion UNC Asheville in the semifinals.

"The tournament showed what she can do," Childers said. "She has a lot of expectations, and wants to prove she's one of the league's top players."

Fann averaged 12.2 points and 6.5 rebounds, but shot just 42 percent. She struggled mightily from behind the 3-point line, hitting just 17 percent, after shooting 36 percent as a freshman.

She should be joined in the starting lineup by veterans who are a year older and hopefully at lot wiser -- guards Franchesca Davenport and Yvonne van Daalen and forward Tiffany Rodd -- and a newcomer who could make a big difference, 6-2 center Jennifer Walker, a junior college transfer from Memphis.

Davenport, one of the team's most athletic players, has been outstanding in practice and can play either guard spot. In a recent series of six scrimmages, playing with different lineups, Davenport's teams won five times.

"She's more assertive at both ends of the floor," Childers said.

Van Daalen came back in the best shape of any player, and she and Davenport have been pushing each other in practice.

Rodd averaged 10.8 points and 4.2 rebounds last year. Childers says "she can smell points" and can "knock down big shots."

Walker brings an enthusiasm to the floor, along with some tough, physical play, something the team missed last season. She can also step out and shoot the 15-foot jumper.

Put Walker together with 6-2 junior Ashley Haugtvedt, one of the team's best shooters, and the center spot looks a lot better.

"We're going to have 40 solid minutes there," Childers said.

Veterans Shelly Hankins, Jessica Fansler, Shanice Cole and Kathi Ryska also return, and Childers brought in freshmen Ashley Cox, Kahler McBride, Asha Gwynn and Sarah Scott. Because of so many veterans returning, it may be difficult for that group to land much playing time.

The Lady Eagles were also victims of a loaded schedule last season. It's not quite as tough this time around which should help.

Childers does have a different test this year.

With the Big South down to seven teams, that means just 12 league games, with conference play not starting until late January.

"We've got to keep them together and focused for a long time," he said, "in order to peak in late January when we need to."

But Childers really likes what he sees and he did take one look back at last season for comparison.

"This team is so much different," he said. "I'd say this team would beat last year's by 25 points."

And that may be the best kind of look back you can have.

• Sunday: Winthrop/Big South

• Monday: South Carolina/SEC

• Tuesday: Clemson/ACC

• Today: Winthrop Women/Big South

• Sunday: Randy Peele profile

• BSC women's preview • 2C

• Winthrop women's roster, schedule • 2C

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