After back-to-back losing seasons and fifteen straight losses to conference opponents, it might have been difficult to find reasons to be optimistic about Duke’s 2011 season. Fortunately, change came on the sideline, and that has instantly vaulted the Blue Devils back into the national conversation.
First-year head coach Pam Bustin has breathed new life into the program, leading her team to an 11-6 this season, and the No. 8 national ranking entering this week’s ACC tournament. The team will face off against Virginia tomorrow at 3 p.m. in College Park, Md., in the quarterfinals of the conference championship.
“[Bustin] has done some amazing things transforming this program,” senior Stephanie Fee said. “We’ve all jumped on board with her awesome leadership.... She’s brought a lot of fun to the game.”
Following that disappointing 2010 campaign, former Blue Devil head coach Beth Bozman unexpectedly announced her resignation after eight years at Duke, in which she compiled a 115-56 record. In her first four seasons, Bozman led the Blue Devils to four consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances, but the program finished at the bottom of the ACC in two of her final three years.
“We know that everyone here is hugely passionate about what they’re doing,” sophomore Emmie Le Marchand said. “And especially coming from [Bozman] into this year everyone is perhaps even more into it than they were last season.”
Bustin has built close relationships with her players on and off the field, treating them both as Division-I athletes and also as regular college students.
“I couldn’t ask for a better coach and better relationship,” senior Tara Jennings said. “I think her passion shows through even off the field in how much she cares about us with our personal relationships. She treats everyone like her own kid.”
To go along with her supportive nature, Bustin also brought a wealth of experience to Duke, having spent the past 13 years at the helm of Louisville. After taking over as head coach in 1998, Bustin took a Cardinal squad stuck in a 34-game losing streak and transformed it into a perennial top-25 team. She won two coach of the year awards, first in the MAC in 2001 and then in the Big East in 2008, just three years after Louisville switched conferences. Bustin’s coaching tenure also includes a year as the Hofstra head coach and nearly a decade in assistant coaching positions at Temple and Michigan State.
“Pam knows the game better than any coach I’ve ever worked with,” senior Samantha Nelson said. “She has not only a fundamental understanding of the game, but she is actually able to communicate that to the players, which is a challenge with some coaches.”
Her technical knowledge has helped bring the team back to third in the conference, behind two of the nation’s top three teams, No. 1 North Carolina and No. 3 Maryland. Duke was tripped up last weekend by the Cavaliers, though, so the squad will have to be on top of its game to have a shot at dethroning one of those top-ranked teams later in the bracket. If the players can match Bustin’s contagious enthusiasm for the game, they have the ability to compete with the best teams in the country, as they did when they took down then-No. 2 Old Dominion.
“We love Pam,” redshirt freshman Lauren Blazing said. “Every day on the field the attitude that she brings makes us bring our best as well because she’s so excited to play.”
And Bustin is just as excited about her players as they are about her. A little more than halfway through the season, the coach gave her thoughts on her first year with the Blue Devils.
“I’m loving every day,” Bustin said. “To be able to work with these kids who are pushing so hard to be the greatest in the country is something that means a lot to me. I want to give them everything they need to be successful.”
It would appear that Bustin has done just that in her short time with the Blue Devils, who have ranked as high as fifth nationally this season—their highest placement since 2008. And if the miraculous turnaround is any indication, Duke’s future looks brighter, and more enjoyable, than ever.
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