By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
PORTALES — Off to its best start in several seasons, the ranks of Eastern New Mexico University women’s basketball team have thinned considerably in the last couple of weeks due to knee injuries.
First, junior reserve forward Rochelle Vance went down in a win over Fort Lewis at the West Texas A&M Thanksgiving Shootout two weekends ago. Starters Elizabeth Richards and Riikka Lehtonen were injured on this weekend’s trip to Oklahoma.
All three suffered torn ACLs — Lehtonen to her right knee and the others to their left knees. Richards, a junior from Texico who sat out 2004-05 after starting 54 of 55 games in her first two seasons at ENMU, was the Zias’ second-leading scorer (13.0 ppg) and rebounder (7.6), while Lehtonen was averaging 11.5 points.
Lehtonen and Richards were examined in Amarillo on Monday. All three players are scheduled for surgery Jan. 3.
The Zias (5-1) host Texas A&M-Commerce on Thursday and St. Edward’s on Saturday.
“They’re players that will be definitely missed,” ENMU women’s coach Dan Buzard said. “We’ll just have to keep playing, because the games aren’t going to be canceled.”
Neither Richards nor Lehtonen — a native of Finland who transferred to ENMU last year from Kilgore (Texas) Junior College — had ever sustained an injury.
“I was hoping to be back on Thursday,” said Richards, who led Texico to three consecutive Class 2A state championships (2000-02). “I was having so much fun this year.”
Richards said she got contact on her knee going up for a rebound early in Thursday’s game at Southwestern Oklahoma. “When I came down, it collapsed,” she said.
Lehtonen was injured Saturday in the final minute of the Zias’ 66-65 win at Cameron.
“I was cutting for the ball and my defender pushed me,” she said. “That’s just part of the game. You never know what’ll happen.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet, but I bet on Thursday I’ll realize it.”
Richards and Lehtonen will have at least one year of eligibility remaining, and Richards may actually get two years. However, she’s scheduled to graduate in the spring and said she would visit with Buzard today to go over her options.
Lehtonen is in her fourth year of school and said she definitely plans to play next year. She’s not scheduled to graduate until the spring of 2007.
Vance, who averaged 7.8 points and 6.3 rebounds in four games off the bench, is expected to have two years of eligibility left, Buzard said.
“We’re going to definitely start playing some people who we weren’t expecting to play so much,” he said. “They’ll just have to pick their games up, offensively and defensively.”