FLORENCE — North Alabama is now two weeks into preseason practice and men’s coach Bobby Champagne has seen steady improvement from his team.
That doesn’t mean the veteran coach is totally pleased with his team’s progress. The Lions finished 15-12 last season and return just one starter.
“We are getting better — just not at the rate we need to be in order to be ready for our first game,” Champagne said. “We’ll have a couple of exhibition games before we open and we should learn a lot from playing against good competition.”
Injuries are part of the reason the Lions are not progressing as quickly as Champagne would like. Three senior transfers have missed practice time with various injuries. Guard Demetrice Jacobs has not practiced at all in the past two weeks due to a foot issue.
“We haven’t had 15 healthy bodies at practice yet, so it’s been hard to tell how much progress we’ve made,” Champagne said. “If we can get everybody healthy and have them all buy in to what we are doing, we should have a deep team.”
Senior point guard Kenyan Jackson is the only returning starter. Junior guards Wes Long and Nathan Spehr also return, along with sophomore center Lazar Petrov.
South Alabama transfer DeAndre Hersey, Louisiana Tech transfer Lonnie Smith, freshman Jere Vucica and junior college transfer Bruce Adams give the Lions some much-needed size in the post. Junior college transfer Rashaun Claiborne adds another scoring threat on the wing, along with redshirt freshman Corey Ricks.
“We do have more size this year and we are more athletic,” Champagne said. “We have not shot the ball as well yet as I expected. Right now everybody is still trying to figure out where they fit in.”
UNA plays an exhibition game at UAB on Saturday and then will play at Long Beach State the following Saturday. The Lions open the regular season at home on Nov. 12 against Fisk.
“We still have a long way to go and getting healthy would really help,” Champagne said. “Our energy level needs to be better and hopefully playing somebody else will get us going.”
Like the men, the women return just one starter from last season’s 15-13 team. Junior center Nichelle Fillmore is the only full-time starter returning, but veterans such as senior guard Sarah Bailey and senior forward Julia Myers have experience.
Coach Terry Fowler has been very pleased with the work ethic and enthusiasm of his four freshmen.
“Usually you have to coach effort with freshmen, but not with this group,” he said. “They have brought a lot of energy to our team and everyone is giving great effort. This team has really bought into what we are preaching, they just don’t have much experience.”
A key is getting Abby Andrews on the floor. The former Collinwood standout has missed most of the past three years after multiple knee surgeries, but has looked like her old self in the first two weeks of practice.
Another key is at point guard. Sophomore Lauren Farris played very little last season,but has stepped up in practice.
“Lauren has made the biggest leap of any of our players,” Fowler said. “The game has slowed down for her and she has come so far from last year. She is playing with poise and making shots.”
Fowler expects the Lions to be better defensively because of their athleticism. He hopes to be able to use more pressure to create transition baskets.
UNA plays an exhibition game at Tennessee State on Thursday and then will play at LSU on Nov. 6. The Lions open the regular season against Tuskegee in Huntsville on Nov. 10.
“We have to get better at knowing what to do and not be thinking too much,” Fowler said. “But I really like our team chemistry and other intangibles that are so important.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.
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