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Halfway through her workout, University at Buffalo women's basketball coach Cheryl Dozier has worked up a good sweat.

She pedals away through the simulated hills on the stationary bike three hours before tip-off, attempting to take her mind off the game while watching Oprah and the early evening news.

Her ritualistic workouts, which last at least an hour before every game -- home and on the road -- relieve stress, she says.

But there's only so much relaxing Dozier can do.

As she pounds through her high-resistance workout, she peers over at another stationary bike, set to the lowest level.

"Aw, we gotta up your intensity here," Dozier says, taking the liberty of increasing the resistance level.

A handful of her players, who have wandered into the training room for taping, treatment or general discussion, wonder what she's doing to her unsuspecting workout partner.

"That's her," one of them says later. "She likes to push buttons."

But if only Dozier knew which buttons to push at what times. She is the only female head basketball coach in the Big 4 and arguably the most visible woman in college sports in Western New York.

Fast starts, then slumps

In her third year as a Division I head coach, the 33-year-old Dozier has gotten a lot of mileage out of the Bulls. They've set school records for best start in a season, beaten a Top 25 team and received votes in the Associated Press poll. She has a career mark of 47-29 heading into tonight's 7 o'clock home game against Western Michigan.

But she can't quite get her team over the hump. Can't keep them from sputtering at midseason.

And until the Bulls win a Mid-American Conference championship and make an NCAA tournament appearance, she won't be able to relax, or even try to.

Earlier in the day, Dozier is grabbing a late lunch at the Fine Arts Center with Dorsi Raynolds, UB's women's swimming coach. They share motivational notes and theories on dealing 18- to 21-year-olds from every kind of family background.

The conversation is colored by two stark realities:

Two players -- Katie Blazewski and Colleen Tabor -- have left the basketball program, leaving Dozier with no players from her first UB recruiting class.

The team was suffering through a three-game conference losing streak with her key seniors struggling, particularly on offense.

"Kids get funny their senior year," Raynolds says. "I mean, I've seen just about everything from seniors. Sometimes, when they're a senior, kids will leave the sport before the sport leaves them."

And so with all the advantages of a senior-led team, Dozier still has to find the right buttons to push.

She tries to find ways to prevent a repeat of last year, when her team got off to a 12-1 start but lost its last five regular-season games and finished 18-11 overall. The Bulls won their first-round playoff game and nearly upset Kent State, the ultimate champion. But it was too little, too late.

She wanted this year to be different.

But it's almost like living in the twilight zone. Another hot start, another mediocre beginning to the conference season. The path to disappointment seems too well traveled.

The criticism starts with the base of the Bulls' success -- the senior class.

Seniors are Sal's kids

Dozier didn't recruit those kids, she inherited them from the previous head coach, Sal Buscaglia. Tiffany Bell, Mari McClure, Sonia Ortega, Tara Perrier -- they are all Sal's kids. And the knock is, any success Dozier has achieved is because of Sal's kids.

"I've heard it and of course people are going to say that," Dozier said. "But the question is would Sal have gotten out of these kids what I have? Would they have been this successful? I don't think so."

And so with her strong sense of confidence, she brushes off those critics. That's easy to dismiss.

What's not so easy to dismiss -- kids quitting the program. Last year it was Nisha Wilson and Mia Thurman who quit in midseason. Kim Kilpela was academically dismissed over the summer. This year, it was Blazewski and Tabor.

They left for a garden variety of reasons every Division I head coach deals with from moving on to concentrate on academics (Tabor) to homesickness (Thurman) to losing interest in the rigors, commitment and sacrifice of playing (Wilson and Blazewski).

And so Dozier's entire first recruiting class as a head coach was gone within two years. A week and two games after the final two left, she still has a look of remorse when she talks about it.

"I will be the first to admit we made mistakes that first year in recruiting," Dozier said. "We didn't recruit kids with good character. So now, maybe we look for the slightly less talented athlete with better character. We certainly learned a lot of lessons that first year."

Lessons like what to ask recruits to find out if they have the hard-working, self-sacrificing character she wants. Dozier pays closer attention to how kids talk -- do they focus on their own accomplishments, or do they talk about their team? How do they talk about their family? How committed are they? What's their work ethic?

See, you have to give up a part of yourself to succeed in her system. And those not willing to accept that are bound to be less than happy.

Players refute criticism

Could it be she's a bit too hard on her players?

"It may look that way to people, but it's nothing like that," said McClure, a senior. "Everybody on this team, if you asked them, would defend coach to death. Those kids left because of their own reasons. It had nothing to do with coach."

In fact, for some, her intensity on the court is what draws them to her program.

"I'm an emotional player and I liked her intensity and her emotion," freshman Virginia Jennings said. "I wanted to go to a place where the coach was going to leave everything out on the floor. She does."

Intensity and hard work have been Dozier trademarks from her playing days at Aquinas College through her assistant days at Lake Superior State, Ohio University and Michigan State.

It's something former Michigan State head coach Karen Langeland saw in Dozier when she spent five years as an assistant for the Spartans during their NCAA tournament seasons.

"She's very outgoing, very intense, very personable," said Langeland, who retired after 24 years of coaching last season. "She always coached in practice and in games with a great deal of intensity. Certainly she has a good knowledge of the game and is very willing to learn as much as she possibly can."

"There are lots of good X and O coaches out there," UB Athletic Director Bob Arkeilpane said. "Cheryl is certainly one of them, but on top of that, she's a person of integrity, she's got high standards and obviously she's very intense about what she does. . . . A fiery competitor is how I'd describe her."

But when Dozier's players don't show that similar fire, that willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the team, she can only shake her head. Kids today!

"Things come too easy to them and their parents can be part of the problem," Dozier said. "When I was in school, if I called my mom and said I wanted to quit, she'd come there and kick my butt. She'd tell me no way was I leaving."

Mother was influential

Dozier's mother was an enormous influence in her life. She taught her how to be strong, how to be independent.

Dozier's father left their Michigan home when she was 11 years old, leaving her mother, Alice, to work and raise five kids. Cheryl was the youngest and as she watched her mother struggle, she learned a lot about strength and adversity.

Always a major factor in her life, Dozier's family grew when her mother married Larry Czaja. Larry immediately became one of Cheryl's biggest supporters, attending almost every home game during her five-year stint as an assistant coach at Michigan State. He was the most enthusiastic when she got her big break -- her first head coaching job, at UB in the summer of 1998.

Then came that September day, just three months after she was hired at UB. Dozier's cell phone rang at a team barbecue.

Her stepfather had committed suicide, leaving her mother alone with their newly adopted 4-year-old daughter.

Dozier jumped on a plane and, even though she's the only one of five kids who lives farther than a 45-minute drive away from home, she was the second child to show up at her mother's house.

"I will never forget that day," Dozier said, carefully keeping herself composed. "That was the hardest thing for me to go through."

Dozier spent three weeks in Michigan with her mother and struggled with the idea of going back to Buffalo, so far away from her family.

As difficult as it was, Dozier returned to her team here and threw herself into her work. Those who know her expected nothing less.

"I think above all else, one of the things that came through in the interview process was that Cheryl was a terrific person," Arkeilpane said.

Her search for improvement is relentless. Dozier rides that bike at men's practice many times looking for new drills and ways to tweak her offense.

Balancing act

But the most important thing she's learned in her three years as a head coach has nothing to do with X's and O's. It's that elusive life skill -- balance.

"We're constantly preaching balance to our kids -- academics, basketball, socializing," Dozier said. "As coaches, we have to show them that in our lives, too."

So days off are now days off. Team outings to go bowling or to the movies aren't just about team building, but about having fun.

Despite her overpowering intensity, Dozier does temper that with a personable attitude. During her pregame training room workout sessions, players freely go up to her ("Big Doz" as they call her) and share bits of their daily life. The upperclassmen in particular approach her with the ease of an assistant coach but with the respect of a head coach.

And, whether their personal style conflicts with hers or not, the players, those 12 who are left, have developed a respect for Dozier.

Her coaching philosophy, which relies heavily on defense, has helped build a consistently competitive program, one that got votes in national polls earlier this season.

Eventually, the questions become not if she'll leave Buffalo for a bigger, better, higher-profile job, but when.

"Last year when the Michigan State job opened up, my mother pleaded with me to apply for it," Dozier said. "But, well, first of all, I don't think I would have gotten it. But I haven't accomplished everything I came to Buffalo to do . . . which is win a MAC championship."

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