Belmont’s first-year head coach Brittney Ezell doesn’t seem to have frowning in her repertoire of facial expressions. She beams with a mixture of pride and excitement when discussing the upcoming Belmont women’s basketball season.
Her assessment after the first five days of practice: “The intensity level has been far above my expectation. The kids are buying in slowly but surely. I really have no complaints to be quite honest.”
When Ezell took over for former head coach Tony Cross in April, she wasn’t exactly left with a bare cupboard. The Lady Bruins return three starters from last year’s squad and have just two new players. Junior forward Haley Nelson, who averaged 13.2 points last year, was a unanimous selection to the preseason all-conference team.
But Ezell has made it clear that there’s a new sheriff in town. Hitting the weight room was her first order of business.
She said their conditioning level has been good, thanks to their preseason work with Josh McMillian, head strength and conditioning coach. “I think that it gives them confidence going into game situations,” Ezell said. “They know that their body is not going to fail them.”
And that’s not to mention that they’ll need the extra energy, based on the style Ezell wants them to play.
“Defensively, the word that we’ve been using in the preseason is relentless. We want our kids to be very pressure-oriented,” Ezell said. “I told our kids ‘You want to make somebody miserable from the moment they get off the bus to the moment they get back on the bus,’ and that’s the hope.”
Senior point guard Shaunda Strayhorn acknowledges a change in mentality.
“(We are) better than ever. Our new coaching staff is a whole lot different and more intense,” Strayhorn said. “I’ve been counting down the days ‘til our first scrimmage, our first game.”
Senior Shaunda Strayhorn returns at the point guard position for the Lady Bruins. Strayhorn has been in the program for five years and played in all 30 games last year. She brings experience where the Bruins might need it most.
“For myself, I expect leadership, and hopefully the team will want to follow me and come out with the same goal… the A-Sun champ,” Strayhorn said about her expectations for the season. “I want to go to the NCAA again.”
The Lady Bruins have a number of guards following Strayhorn’s lead. Junior transfer Katie Brooks, sophomore guard Kristin Nash, senior Whitney Seals, junior Crystal Kesler and lone freshman Molly Ernst will all see time at the point or shooting guard spots.
Seniors Tereva Moore and Rachel Swisher are viable options at the guard/forward hybrid position. Junior Cacy Burnett brings the most experience from last year. Belmont will rely on these players to take the pressure off the post by hitting jumpers and taking the ball to the basket.
Junior Haley Nelson returns to the post position for the third year in a row. Last year, she established a name for herself as a low-post presence and was a unanimous selection to the all-Atlantic Sun preseason team.
“Haley’s a worker,” Ezell said. “She’s naturally gifted, she has so many athletic tools that are just God-given: size, speed, strength. She’s just talented. We’re just focusing in on trying to make her a dominating force.”
Ezell said she’s a great teammate. “She’s more concerned with the team than she is with herself and you want that from your superstar.”
Backing up Nelson in the post will be sophomore Alyssa Visbeen and junior Tristan Daniel. Junior Shai Wilkins tore her ACL in the preseason and will be out for the year.
Staff writer Katie Greene contributed to this story.