Bollant moving women’s team in right direction


Sean Hastings

Matt Bollant, the women’s basketball coach directs the team in their exhibition win over Indiana State Friday in Lantz Arena. Eastern won its two exhibition games and open its season this Friday.

JJ Bullock, Assistant Sports Editor

Throw away the sports clichés of “it’s just the preseason” and “its too early to tell,” because they do not apply to the 2017 Eastern women’s basketball team.

Just two exhibition games into the new season it is plain to see ­— the women’s basketball program at Eastern is better than it has been in years, and it is a big thanks to new head coach Matt Bollant.

There has never been any question of the talent surrounding the women’s program. The right pieces to the puzzle, or at least the all-important corner pieces, have always been on the table. But the pieces were scrambled, and the Panthers endured two straight last-place seasons in the OVC because of it.

However, on April 14, Eastern athletic director Tom Michael went out and found the person to piece the puzzle back together and hired Bollant.

Bollant was fired as the head coach of the Illinois women’s basketball program after a five-year stint, which he exited with a 61-94 record. Before coaching at Illinois, Bollant had a very successful run as the University of Green Bay’s head coach. He was 148-19 there and led the Phoenix to five straight Horizon League titles.

This season with Eastern, it has been apparent since day one of his tenure that Bollant was here to turn the program around.

“As soon as Coach B came, I mean the first day he got here, it was like an instant change in the gym,” senior guard Grace Lennox said. “The atmosphere (he brings) makes us want to work hard.”

Lennox has arguably been Eastern’s best player the last few seasons, but with as much output as she has given, the Panthers have still struggled in her time at Eastern. Her comments on Bollant came after Eastern’s exhibition match with Indiana State, which the team won 77-70 after losing to the Sycamores 88-61 last year.

Many of the team’s veteran players have taken notice of the culture change Bollant has brought to the program and have responded to it by increasing their own work ethics.

“Since he got here we have just worked so hard,” junior guard Carmen Tellez said. “We knew he was going to help us get better, so much better and we just work hard every single day to get to this point.”

One player whose game has improved since Bollant took over is sophomore forward Jennifer Nehls. The 6-foot forward showed flashes of her potential in her freshman season, scoring in double digits more than once. However, in other games she would hardly be a factor at all. Coming into this season, Bollant promised she would be, not only one of the team’s most improved players, but one of the team’s best players.

That promise has been backed up by Nehls in the first two exhibition games this season. Against Indiana State, she scored nine points, had seven rebounds and six assists. Then against Rose-Hulman she tallied 16 points and made four three-pointers, while  she made just eight all of last season.

“I feel like I have always worked as hard as I had. It feels more comfortable this year knowing that (Bollant) trusts us to be versatile players and he trusts us to read and run the offense and be disciplined,” Nehls said.

Opposing coaches from the top of the conference to the bottom are now keeping a closer eye on Eastern since the addition of Bollant.

“I think Matt (Bollant) is going to do a great job. I have a ton of respect for him,” Eastern Kentucky head coach Chrissy Roberts said. “I know they will be competitive. They won’t have a choice. I think with him they could be a really competitive team in the league.”

While it needs to be pointed out that the regular season will not even start for the Panthers until Nov. 10, it has been impossible to ignore, even as early as it is, the pieces of Eastern’s basketball puzzle beginning to form an image. And if all goes to plan, that image could be one of a banner.

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]