Got Hook?

March 2000, basketball at Western Carolina University was in what some would call turmoil. After being ousted by Chattanooga in the first round of the men’s Southern Conference tournament, and under what some called shady circumstances, coach Phil Hopkins was fired.

Along the same time, actually prior to the conference championships, the coaching positions on the women’s side were challenged and in the end, on March 7, discontinued. Again, some wondered about shady deals.

The weeks and months that followed saw two new coaches and new staffs hired and rosters filled. Stealing a line from A Christmas Story everything seemed right with the world. However, everyone was awaiting the start of the 2000-2001 roundball campaigns.

One start must have seemed like a dream, while the other seems like a continuing nightmare. The Lady Catamounts, under first year head coach Beth Dunkenberger, raced out to the best start in years, starting out 6-3 before the Christmas break.

Santa Claus came early.

Since then they have stumbled, fallen, and just about scraped their knees, only winning one out of their last six.

The nightmare for head coach Steve Shurina started before the first tip-off. The first loss, arguably, came before the St. Joseph’s debacle. It came with the loss of senior Ricky Gandy for the first half of the season to a foot injury.

The nightmare continues in the form of a ten-game losing streak, an an 0-fer in conference play and a dismal 2-17 overall record.

Amongst all of the negatives it seems almost impossible to think about the existence of positives – the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel… a few metaphorical diamonds in the rough.

For Beth Dunkenberger, the great start, which included close losses to defending Southern Conference tournament champion Furman (79-72, OT) and defending TAAC regular season and tournament champs Campbell and Georgia State, has been overshadowed by the losing skid. Yet, at 7-8 and 1-5 in the conference with the majority of the slate remaining, things are looking up for the young coach.

As a team, the Lady Cats rank fifth in the conference in scoring offense, led by junior Laura Echols, who’s tied for first in scoring. Echols is also fifth in the SoCon in rebounding.

WCU ranks third in steals average led by sophomore Christy Blackwell who is second in both assists and steals. Senior April Fleck ranks sixth in the conference in steals.

Dunkenberger and staff’s recruiting class, headed by Harlan, Kentucky’s Tiffany Hamm, ranks among the top freshmen in the conference.

Despite the losses in conference, Western Carolina has played each and every conference opponent tough and down to the wire. Chattanooga’s head coach Wes Moore even commented that he noticed the improvement in WCU’s team. He added that he felt the Lady Cats would be a team to be reckoned with down the stretch.

Things are truly looking up for Dunkenberger and the Lady Cats.

Well, what about the Catamount basketball team? Are they down and out? Can the 2000-2001 season be written off as a learning experience? One to be forgotten?

Not if Steve Shurina and staff have anything to say about it.

It’s been disappointing for the first-year head coach. His first trip through the conference hasn’t panned out any wins… yet.

Mark my words, this Catamount team will be a factor on the final Southern Conference standings. This Catamount team could play a spoiler role in the conference tournament in Greenville.

Led by Cory Largent, who ranks fifth in the conference in scoring, and his Morganton Freedom tag-team partner, Casey Rogers, who ranks seventh in assists and fourth in steals, the Cats are improving everyday.

And don’t think that the Freedom tandem is the only thing keeping the Cats above water. The emergence and maturing of Willie Freeman, Rans Brempong (who is second in the conference in blocked shots), and the improved play of Turkey’s own Emre Atsur are making WCU dangerous.

Western Carolina has battled The Citadel and VMI til the very end, and took East Tennessee State, who could very possibly win the Northern Division, down to the wire. The Catamounts even gave the College of Charleston, who nearly nipped the boys in baby blue, yes UNC, all they wanted on their home floor.

Yes, the record doesn’t look very pretty — it looks downright vicious. But as the old adages go, beauty is only skin deep and you can’t judge a book by it’s cover.

Everything may not be right with the world, but here in Cullowhee, optimism still lives.