Clarksville, Ark.-University of the Ozarks head women's basketball coach Kelly Stutz enters her second season at the helm of the Lady Eagles program under much different circumstances than last season, and that has resulted in higher expectations for the upcoming 2005-2006 campaign.
The Lady Eagles are poised to make a dramatic improvement from last season’s 4-21 overall record and better their seventh-place conference finish. During the 2004-2005 season, Ozarks had only eight players on the roster. Additionally, last year’s team did not return a single starter. However, the new look 2005-2006 Lady Eagles return four starters and welcome 13 new players to the team. That combination could translate into a post-season playoff appearance, something the program hasn’t achieved in three seasons. "We want to get better everyday, but we want to look at the big picture this season," said Stutz. "Last year, we wanted to improve everyday to reach our potential. This year, we are talking about more concrete goals like competing for the conference title. The girls believe if they do improve everyday, this could really lead to something bigger down the road. The team realizes with the talent and the depth, they have a legitimate chance to be competitive." Olivia Fisher and Erica Eneks, both freshmen standouts last season, will be key components in a possible Ozarks’ turn-around. Fisher, a 6-1 post from Mountain Home, finished second in the American Southwest Conference in rebounding (9.5) and second on the team in scoring (13.0) and earned a spot on the ASC All-East division freshman team. Fisher recorded eight double-doubles and scored 20 or more points six times. Eneks, a 5-7 shooting guard from Mountainburg, finished seventh in the league in scoring (14.4) and fifth in free throw percentage (79.4%). She was the team leader in both of the aforementioned categories and finished tops on the team in three-pointers (47). The sharp-shooting Eneks scored in double-figures in all but five games a year ago. "Erica has worked hard on other parts of her game," said Stutz, whose team finished with a 4-18 league record. "She is a lot better defensively. She is a player that can help us significantly. Olivia is athletic and runs the floor very well and that fits into our system." The two other returning starters are senior guard Lori Moon and junior guard Lindsey Nietert. The durable Moon, a 5-8 native of Rogers, started in all 25 games and led the team in assists (3.4). Moon’s defensive presence was also felt as she was the team leader in steals (1.8). Nietert, from Branch, averaged 8.0 points per game a year ago and hit 41.0 percent of her three-pointers. The 5-8 tough-nosed Nietert ended the season on a flurry by scoring 24 points in the final game of the year. "We have moved Lori back to the wing spot," said Stutz. "She is one of the better defensive players on the team and we have Lindsey at the point guard position. I think one of our team’s strength is the experience in our perimeter players." Stutz will have the luxury of using Fisher and junior Mandi Carter on the inside. Carter, a two-time All-Conference player at Ozarks, returns to her hometown school after a year off of basketball. The 6-1 athletic Carter is expected to pick up where she left off after averaging 14.6 points and 8.6 rebounds in two seasons at Ozarks. "We were a jump shooting team last year and if we were off on the perimeter, with the exception of Olivia, we didn’t have much of an inside game," said Stutz. "We will work the inside-outside game more. Mandi can step up and score for us. We added experience and size with her return." Balance, according to Stutz, is an essential part to a successful season. "We will be a different type of team than last year," said Stutz. "This team will be more balanced. Any successful team I’ve been around has balance. It wouldn’t surprise me if we had four people who averaged in double figures. I don’t think we will have anyone average 25 points per game, and I wouldn’t want that either. I think our scoring can come from anyone on any given night. We have a mix of kids that can help us offensively without a doubt." Other returners expected to provide a lift are senior guard Becky Kimball, junior forward Jeanne Randall and sophomore guard Karen Garcia. Additionally, Stutz will rely on a talented crop of incoming players. "I expect them to come in and make an immediate impact," said Stutz, referring to her first true recruiting class. "And, we need them to. The freshmen will be involved. I think one of our strengths this season will be the depth they provide. Athletically, we are more in line with the rest of the conference." Stutz admits the team’s biggest challenge will be how quickly they come together. "I think the biggest challenge will be getting them all on the same page," said Stutz. "How quickly we will get there is hard to determine. It depends on how hard they work everyday. If we do work hard, we are so young that our best basketball will probably be towards the end of the season. Hopefully we will be peaking at the right time and that’s exciting to me. But, it is up to them if they want to put the effort in day in and day out. So far they have." Ozarks opens the season in Virginia Beach, Virginia, at the Tyson Tip-Off Tournament on November 18-19. The Lady Eagles face Wittenberg University on November 18 and either Virginia Wesleyan College or Washington College on November 19.