By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
PORTALES — Elizabeth Richards, Riikka Lehtonen and Rochelle Vance have a lot in common — starting with torn ACLs in consecutive games that proved devastating to the 2005-06 Eastern New Mexico University women’s basketball season.
All had their surgeries on the same day in January at Amarillo, and all have rehabbed successfully. They are ready for the start of the new season, which for the Zias begins with an exhibition game Nov. 2 at Lubbock Christian.
First-year Zias coach Linden Weese is counting heavily on the trio.
“They’re really doing a nice job (in practice),” he said. “They deserve some good luck. They’ve worked hard to put themselves back in this position, and hopefully it pays off for them.”
Vance was injured in the Zias’ fourth game last year, followed by Richards and Lehtonen. The Zias got off to a 6-1 start, but managed only five wins the rest of the way.
For Richards, a willowy 5-foot-11 senior from Texico, it’s almost the equivalent of two seasons on the sidelines. After solid freshman and sophomore campaigns at ENMU, she sat out the 2004-05 season before returning to the squad last year.
“I’m doing really good,” she said. “It’ll hurt some days, but (overall) it’s not too bad.
“I don’t think I’m in the flow yet, but today (Wednesday) I had a really good practice.”
Richards is hoping to play without a knee brace, while the others will likely have to use braces.
“Elizabeth is kind of testing it right now to see if she wants to play with or without it,” Weese said.
It’s the first significant injury for any of them, but by having their surgeries at the same time and going through rehab together, they developed a camaraderie.
“It was good to have support,” said Lehtonen, a 6-foot post player from Turku, Finland. “We were trying to push each other to get back.”
Lehtonen played for the Zias the previous season after transferring from Kilgore (Texas) College. Meantime, Vance was a new juco transfer last season, coming in from Frank Phillips (Texas).
Vance, a 5-10 junior forward from Duncanville, Texas, said about the only time she notices the effects of the injury is occasionally after practice.
“Right after the surgery was the most frustrating time,” she said. “You couldn’t do anything on the court for the first month, and you had to try to walk without a limp.”
All three are chomping at the bit to play again.
“I’m definitely ready to get back on the court,” Vance said. “I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people in the (Lone Star Conference South Division).”
Richards, who averaged 11 points and nearly seven rebounds over her first two seasons, said she thinks her knee may be better than it was before the injury.
“I don’t feel any different, except I don’t feel quite as quick,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll get back to 100 percent if I keep my rehab up.”
Lehtonen said while things have gone well in practice, she’s looking forward to playing against another team.
“Last year we started out so good,” she said. “I can’t wait to see how we do.”