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story.lead_photo.caption Lincoln women's basketball coach Drea Mize stands last month outside of Jason Gym. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Lincoln women's basketball coach Drea Mize has been in this situation before, taking over the reins of a struggling program.

Just look at her two years as head coach at College of Central Florida, a junior college in Ocala, Fla.

Prior to her arrival, the Patriots were 8-20 in the 2017-18 season. They followed with a 12-win season after Mize arrived, then went 19-15 in her second year, advancing to the Florida College System Activities Association state tournament, which featured the top junior college teams in the South Atlantic.

But after losing in the tournament semifinals in early March, Mize was on the search for a new job, due to circumstances out of her control.

In early December 2019, College of Central Florida announced it was eliminating its men's and women's basketball programs at the end of the season due to budget cuts.

Mize and the Patriots were off to a 7-3 start last season. They would lose six of their next eight games after the news was announced.

"Obviously the girls were devastated," Mize said. "That happened right before Christmas time and the holidays, so that made it a little worse."

Even though the program had no future beyond the 2019-20 season, the Patriots bounced back, finished strong in February and won a pair of conference playoff games to get to the state tournament.

"We stayed the course all the way until the beginning of the March," Mize said. "We made the state tournament for the first time in six or seven years for that program."

Once the season ended, Mize pondered her next step. Would she take a head-coaching position elsewhere, or would she try for an assistant coaching job at a Division I school?

That's when she saw the opening at Lincoln.

"With how quickly things had progressed and how quickly I turned around that program down there at CF, I knew the next step for me, if I wanted to stay a head coach, was probably in the Division II ranks," Mize said.

"For me, I was not ready to give up steering my own ship just yet."

It was around the time the COVID-19 outbreak began, so the interview process was not going to be typical.

"All of it was virtual," Mize said. "I did not make my first appearance on campus until the end of April."

The search was spearheaded by Lincoln athletic director John Moseley and assistant athletic director Keena Lynch.

"It was the second time in my career that, to make a hire, we did a virtual campus tour," Moseley said.

Mize was announced as Lincoln's next women's basketball head coach in early April. Now the next step was to fill out her roster and coaching staff for next season, another tall task during the time of COVID-19.

"I really had to lean heavily on all of my mentors in my network within the NCAA," Mize said, "and even (junior college). You'll see we have a lot of juco kids coming in."

There are nine junior college transfers who are newcomers to the Blue Tigers, including four who followed Mize from the College of Central Florida.

"I think having them here and understanding the process, telling the girls, 'Hey, this is going to work if you put forth the effort,' has been huge for me," Mize said.

The only returning players from last season are Lincoln's three seniors: Natasha Dolinsky, Vivian Chigbu and Virja Lewis.

"I really wanted girls I knew who could not only make an impact on the court, but were good in the classroom and good teammates, hard workers and really open-minded," Mize said. " They've been really open with me in their experience in the past and what they expect out of their senior year."

Joining Mize's coaching staff are assistant coach Rob McDonald, a former assistant at Eastern Florida State College; graduate assistant Brittany Byrd, who played professionally after her college career ended at Illinois-Chicago; and volunteer assistant Nafeesa Fajri, a former assistant at Lincoln College Prep.

"I've really enjoyed having all three of them on staff, they've been phenomenal," Mize said. "We're starting from the bare bones. We're building the culture, we're starting the foundation and really trying to build it into what we know it can be."

Mize played collegiately at Indiana University. During her time with the Hoosiers, she played for three coaches in four years.

"I really saw the way coaches can mold you and impact you for the better," she said. "As coaches, I took a lot of that responsibility on, trying to make sure that they get to know me rather quickly."

She has done family-oriented outings with her players, such as visiting a local pumpkin patch, for team-bonding purposes.

"That seems very little, but to take them to a pumpkin patch and have them pick out their own pumpkin and bring it back and be able to carve, those are little traditions that you really can't put a price on," Mize said.

Mize said coming to Lincoln was a "no-brainer," comparing Jefferson City to Bloomington, Ind., because "it has the hometown feel when you step off the campus life." She also relished the chance to return to the Midwest.

"She's not afraid to get out into the community and build relationships, and get people interested in supporting her program, which I think is a huge thing as you try to turn a program around," Moseley said.

"I see her as a rock star, and I think she's going to do great things for our women's program."

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