By Dave Wagner
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of five stories highlighting the top Portales-area sports stories of the year.
Dan Buzard’s second season as Eastern New Mexico University women’s head basketball coach was a rewarding one.
Picked for last place in the Lone Star Conference South Division, the Zias surprised nearly everyone by staying in contention for the division title until the final weekend of the season and earning an NCAA Division II regional tournament berth. Buzard went on to capture South coach of the year honors.
In early June, he married former ENMU softball pitcher Jennifer Harrer. Then in late July, Buzard suddenly found himself dealing with his health.
While visiting his in-laws in Albuquerque, the 36-year-old became ill and was hospitalized with a cancerous brain tumor. Most of the tumor has been surgically removed and he has recovered to the point where he can attend some practices and most home games, but his eyesight was impacted by pressure from the tumor and has limited his ability to function on his own.
Still, Buzard remains upbeat, and hopeful that things will eventually get better.
“I feel good and I think things are going the right way,” he said Wednesday. “You’ve got to be prepared for whatever comes your way, no matter if it’s good or bad. There’s no way to handle it except to handle it straight on.”
Buzard says he’s been overwhelmed by the kindness of well-wishes of people in the area. He plans to continue to attend Zias home games the rest of the season, and perhaps a relatively close road game or two.
“I’ve got to think a lot before I do things now,” he said. “I’ve always been active and able to do what I want. Now, I’ve just got to have others to help me.”
While recuperating in Albuquerque in September, the team made a special trip to visit him one weekend.
“We just want to do really well for coach Buzard,” senior guard Laci Lee said in preseason. “You can tell there’s something missing.”
A native of Portales, Buzard spent 13 seasons as an assistant to longtime coach Wayne Moore before taking over the program when Moore retired in 2002. ENMU went 16-12 last season, its first winning record in four years, and finished 10-4 in the division.
In his absence, assistant coach Dustin Klafka has taken over the team, with Moore returning to the sidelines as an assistant. The Zias, who don’t play again until Jan. 6, posted wins over a pair of 2003 NCAA Division II tournament qualifiers to start the current season and have gone 5-4 to this point against a fairly competitive schedule.
Klafka, who served as a student assistant and then a graduate assistant in the program from 1998-2002 and returned as a fulltime assistant last year after one season at Texas A&M-Kingsville, said in September he was ready to do whatever was needed.
“We’re just kind of playing it by ear right now,” he said. “Wayne’s the designated assistant for now. As soon as Dan can be back, we’ll go back to normal.”