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New season, new day for long-suffering Camels

AP Sports Writer

BUIES CREEK — Losing rarely is easy on a coach, and few have gone through as much of it as Robbie Laing did during his first two years at Campbell.

The struggles included an overall record of 5-49 and a 22-game losing streak to end last season, including all 20 games in the Atlantic Sun Conference. No other team in Division I went winless in its conference.

"I cannot begin to tell you how painful it is, each and every day," Laing said Monday. "You can't sleep at night, and when you get up in the morning, it's still with you. It was just total misery."

Things might finally be turning around for the Fighting Camels, who eventually lost 25 games in a row before beating A-Sun foe Stetson on Dec. 1. Another victory two days later over Mercer left them 2-0 in the league for the first time in nine years, and perhaps just as telling was how they got the second one.

Trailing by seven with 4 minutes left, Campbell (2-3) finished the game with a 15-2 run, and sophomore guard Ruell Pringle scored 10 of his 19 points down the stretch.

Forget just winning. Pringle and his teammates had their first winning streak in nearly four years.

"It's like a dream," he said. "Having that hard season last year was tough for us, so getting wins was good enough, and getting conference wins was even greater."

The spree of victories stands a good chance of reaching three, with a visit Wednesday night from North Carolina A&T (0-5), one of two teams to lose to the Camels a year ago. After that, the schedule gets much tougher, with a five-game road trip sandwiched around the Christmas break that includes three "guarantee" games.

It starts at Evansville, then continues on to Indiana State and Florida State before ending with a two-game swing through the A-Sun beginning Jan. 2.

"I make a mistake if I look back at what's transpired, or if I look ahead too much, because both of them are pretty scary," Laing said. "We've just got to try to live in the present. The biggest thing is I think the kids are having fun."

That much was evident during practice Monday, when Laing put his players through a rigorous two hours at quaint Carter Gym — the smallest arena in Division I with a capacity of 947. Much of it featured spirited game situations, with the losers forced to run sprints from sideline to sideline while the winners took a water break.

Of course, Laing's system demands hard work. He likes an up-tempo style that features plenty of 3-pointers, and so far, it has worked better than ever. Campbell leads all A-Sun schools in scoring (81.6 points a game) and assists (17.8), while junior college transfer Eric Smith is second in the country with an average of nearly five 3's through five games.

He's one of two additions to the starting lineup, joining Ledell Eackles, son of the former NBA player of the same name.

"I knew they lost a lot in the past, but I also knew they had good players here," Smith said. "They just needed some extra players to complement them. I thought maybe I could come in here and make a difference."

Something sure has. Laing inherited a program that had declined significantly under former coach Billy Lee, who led the Camels to their only NCAA tournament in 1992 before going 62-129 over his final seven seasons.

That gave Laing a shot at his first head coaching job after working as an assistant for seven different schools, and he continues to make progress. His first challenge was changing the losing mentality, since the Camels haven't finished with a winning record since going 17-11 in 1995-96.

That total included a victory over Stetson in the first round of the conference tournament, the last time they won a postseason game. Last year, Campbell missed the A-Sun tournament for the fourth straight season, but this team plans to change that.

"The environment is better, everything is just different," forward Maurice Latham said. "When we were losing, you could feel all the negativity in the air. You can feel the positive vibe now that we've got those two wins, and we're looking for more."

02/23/07 10:42 AM

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