The last time we saw Sandy Pugh on a sideline, it was eight months ago in New Orleans, when she and the Southern women’s basketball team capped a mostly stellar season with a loss at Tulane in the first round of the WNIT.
Those Jaguars were veterans. They were a mature, experienced team that won back-to-back Southwestern Athletic Conference championships. That team had five seniors - including three who’d been in the program for five years.
At 5 p.m. Friday in the F.G. Activity Center, Pugh will be back on the sideline for the first time since that March game in New Orleans, and for the first time since she agreed to serve as interim athletic director. She’ll begin her 12th year at SU with a season-opening game against Dillard - and she’ll do it with a different-looking team.
A much younger team.
But it doesn’t mean the standards are any lower. The team is different, but the goals are the same: Play hard, try to improve with each game, and try to compete for another SWAC title.
“I would say that people are going to think this team’s more fun,” Pugh said. “They’re going to want to cheer for these kids, but they’re going to see that inexperience. But they’ll also see that intensity and desire to be good, and to represent Southern. They understand what it means to put on that uniform.”
Although the Jaguars do have a few experienced veterans - post player Jamie Floyd, now a fifth-year senior, is the first to come to mind - their roster is also peppered with youngsters. Southern has six freshmen, as well as another newcomer in forward Lechell Rush, who transferred last season from Charleston Southern.
Rush’s roles will resemble those of departed seniors Freda Allen and Ashley Augerson: She can rebound and defend like Allen, but like Augerson, she’s more adept at ballhandling and shooting.
“So you’ll see her playing multiple positions,” Pugh said.
Then there’s center Laneisha Stephens, who, in Pugh’s words, “is in as good a shape as she’s ever been.” A part-time starter last season, she averaged 4.7 points in 18.2 minutes - but Pugh said she believes the left-handed junior could be primed for a breakout year.
In other words, the frontcourt has promise.
But preseason practice hasn’t been encouraging for everyone.
“Hey, we’re banged up,” Pugh said with a chuckle. “We’ve got a bunch of old women bodies.”
Freshman guard Joslyn Allen - younger sister to Freda Allen, who wrapped her college career last spring - suffered a torn ACL in preseason practice and will redshirt. That forces freshman Annysa Hoyle to play and produce a little more than the coaches had originally planned.
Also, point guard Carneta Henderson, who tore a knee ligament in February, is still recovering from reconstructive surgery; the team hopes to have her back in time for the start of SWAC play in January.
Adrian Sanders, who filled in as a point guard down the stretch, is back - but she, too, has dealt with Achilles’ heel in preseason practice.
Despite the setbacks, Pugh said she’s excited. Basketball is back - and for her money, this is the best time of the year. The stress of a title chase hasn’t set in yet. Players are in a good mood. The season is about to start.
“Am I excited about this team? Yeah, because whenever you have a lot of freshmen like that, and they’re hungry and they’re excited and they’re, like, just sponges for everything that comes out of your mouth - I mean, as a coach, that excites you. You get excited to go to practice. You’re looking forward to teaching. You’re looking forward to watching them grow as individuals.”
Friday night, the growth spurt begins.