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A Work In Progress

Jackson, Tenn. - 1/20/2002 - Union's Lady Bulldogs have come a long way
By KARY BOOHER
kbooher@jacksonsun.com
Jan 20 2002

In the movies, they make it look so much easier. Sure, there's drama, but in the movies the happy endings come in just a couple of hours.

With the Union women's basketball team, it's been much different. A three-year work in progress, really.

It began in the Spring of 1999 with the Lady Bulldogs getting a new head coach, Mark Campbell. He not only lacked head coaching experience but had never coached a women's team. At that, he came along under the most difficult circumstances. Campbell essentially replaced co-head coach Lisa Hutchens, who was to take over the team when David Blackstock retired from coaching. All were devastated when Hutchens took her own life February of 1999.

You bet it was difficult. Campbell not only had to win over a program that had won the national title in 1998 but also had to sell his philosophy to seasoned players. It wasn't easy. Transitions never are.

But now look.

Union, at 17-2 overall, is ranked No. 2 in the NAIA. In fact, this is Union's highest ranking since February of 1999.

"I think it's been a transition, but I definitely think it's been a good one," said guard Mary Catherine Way, one of the five seniors who was a freshman in 1999. "I don't think it's been as long or as hard as what we thought it would be in February three years ago. I don't think anyone anticipated the success that we'd have under a brand new coach. He just kept the tradition going."

Campbell is at the heart of the story, but so are the five seniors. There's Way from Jonesboro, Ark., Tonya Tuggles from Bradford, Alisha Lehmkuhl from Gleason, Mary Beth Haltom from University School of Jackson and Tammi Gauldin from Dyersburg.

Together, they've kept Union in position to win another national title. After going 28-8 and losing in the second round of the NAIA tournament in 2000, the Lady Bulldogs - also bolstered by several key signings, including Bradford's Jessica Henson - finished 31-5 and reached the Elite Eight last season.

These days, Union is on a 10-game winning streak since losing, 93-45, to top-ranked and three-time defending national champion Oklahoma City on Nov. 30.

"We're playing better than before Christmas," Campbell said. "We're playing with more of a purpose, which is the way you hope it gets in January and February.

"But I don't think we're close to where we need to be."

That's typical coachspeak, but Campbell is understandably simple, straightforward and reserved.

He is 32 and still trying to prove himself. Keep in mind, he was an assistant coach for Union men's head coach Ralph Turner before Blackstock named Campbell the head women's coach

It was a trying time back then. The plan going into the 1998-99 season was for Blackstock, with everyone back from the national championship team, to hand over coaching duties to Hutchens at season's end.

It made sense. Blackstock was to enter his 25th year as Union's athletics director. Hutchens had spent six of the previous seven seasons as a key assistant who built Union's prowess on the recruiting trail. She also made a name for herself throughout West Tennessee's preps when she guided South Side's girls for five successful seasons.

No question, her death jolted the community. It was made even more difficult to grasp because Union was ranked No. 2 in the NAIA, and the national tournament was just 3  weeks away.

"She was a part of our lives and always will be," Blackstock said. "We have young people here now who were not here during that particular trying time. But for those of us, in particular coaches and staff at Union University, (her death) is something we will never get over."

When Blackstock needed a coach, he had to turn to someone he could trust and also understand the program's sensitive situation, all the while trying to maintain a winner.

Resumes piled up on Blackstock's desk. He sifted through them. Well, sort of.

"I can honestly say we didn't look real hard," Blackstock said.

His coach was just down the hall.

"People in West Tennessee are aware of Union University basketball and aware of the academic requirements," Blackstock said. "We do place an emphasis on character and Christian ideals. I think we couldn't have found anyone better than Mark to come in, sort of grab the banner and continue on with it."

People don't give Generation Xers enough credit. Some young coaches might shake in their suits. Others might hole up in the video room. Campbell soothed his nervousness with faith and went at it.

Not that he was Superman. Campbell hardly had a set coaching philosophy. Think that was tough to sell to seasoned college players?

"We kind of struggled that first season, and it was anticipated we would," Way said. "Not that it was a bad season. I think we had eight losses. We didn't meet all the goals that we wanted. But I think it was last year when we really peaked and we made our mark. Coach Campbell and his way of coaching was different to everybody. Last year, we didn't have that many girls on the team; so it was easy for everybody to get along."

Basically, he got the team to believe again.

As Tuggles put it, "We've come a mighty long way."

"You know how sometimes it takes bad things to realize what we really have in front of us?" Tuggles, one of the seniors, said. "Basically, we never take anything for granted. Always be proud of what you get and what's in front of you."

And that's the thing. It was the seniors, too, who made this work. If they don't start, they hush up and go to the bench to cheer. Way is the only senior starter and the team's third-leading scorer. Haltom is the only other senior who has started and that's been just twice.

They've made way for Jessica Henson, the TranSouth Conference player of the year last year as a freshman, as well as junior center Allison Harrison and point guard Christal Merriweather. Henson is the leading scorer with 13.6 a game, and Harrison is right behind at 10.8. Harrison and Ginger Bryant, who played at Jackson Central-Merry, have combined for 65 blocks.

"If we don't let the intensity drop, it doesn't drop," Gauldin said. "Everybody on this team, they dance to the beat of our drum."

Music to a coach's ears.

"That's one thing about this next year, losing these five. I don't know where our leaders are going to come from," he said of the senior class. "This group, they are mature in different ways spiritually, and mature academically and mature with the way they have relationships with people off the court. It's a great opportunity for them to leave an imprint on our team that's going to last beyond this year."

They already have.


Steven Aldridge
Phone: (731) 661-5027
Sports Information
Fax: (731) 661-5182

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