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Eagles raise their game
Eastside off to 4-0 start after playoff run
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In a county where Newton High is a perennial playoff team and Alcovy reached the elite eight last season, Eastside has been the odd-team out in the region's boys basketball scene.

However, things appear to be changing as the 2012-13 season is under way.

Eastside is off to its best start ever with four straight wins, heading into Saturday's matchup at Monroe Area, which ended after press time.

"It feels good," Eastside coach Gregory Freeman said. "How long has it been since Eastside has been a decent basketball program? These guys believe in themselves because they've worked hard.

"They play in the shadow of a couple of good programs here in Alcovy and Newton but our guys are pretty good."

Since Freeman took over at Eastside prior to the 2011-12 season, the Eagles have been working harder in practices than they had before, and have changed the style of their play from finding one or two players to score to moving the ball around to each player.

Those new habits, coupled with a positive end to the previous season, have led Eastside to an average victory of 10 points per game.

"The belief among (our players) is that they are a good basketball team."

Eastside started 2011-12 losing seven of its first nine games, but finished winning four straight toward the end, and then advanced to the semifinals of the Region 4-AAA tournament, earning a bid into the postseason.

The Eagles lost in the region tournament to Drew, which went on to play for the state championship, before beating Henry County 69-64 in the first round of the state playoffs, setting the stage for this year.

"That definitely was a springboard for this year," Freeman said. "In the playoff game, we led for most of that game and we should have advanced, but we had some unfortunate calls that didn't go our way. Now they understand what playoff basketball is."

This season, the Eagles have been treating each game like it's a playoff game, putting all their efforts into all 32 minutes. That attitude starts in practice, where Eastside has both lived up to Freeman's expectations and impressed him.

"None of our practices are practices where the kids get to go in and shoot layups, we're on the grind every day," Freeman said. "(Friday) in practice, they were moving the ball like an NBA team. It was flying all over the place."

That kind of work has translated into games, where the Eagles are mostly overmatched on size, but have, thus far, been overmatching teams on effort. Against Henry County, on Tuesday, the Warhawks went into a zone defense against Eastside, which went to a man-cutting offense, pushing past Henry County until it switched back to man-to-man defense.

"I'm trying to get them to understand that in order for us to really do some damage this year, and for us to go far, that I believe we have the makeup of a group that is going to be better than most people think we are," Freeman said.

That has been evident up to this point, starting with a 57-49 win over Heritage, followed by a 61-48 victory over Green County and an impressive 62-48 win over Class AAAAAA Alcovy.

Leading to the Eagles' success has been the strong work ethic and the ability to be unselfish. Freeman said he feels that each member of Eastside's 12-man rotation has the ability to score and defend, which is leading to open baskets.

Currently, the open shots have fallen into the hands of Quindarrious Russell, whom Freeman believes is leading the state in scoring with 28.7 points per game prior to Saturday.

Russell scored 32 points Tuesday, after netting 31 against Green County Nov. 27.

"He has emerged," Freeman said. "It's what we do - our offense; it is predicated for our perimeter guys to get clean looks. He gets clean looks and he knocks them down."

Russell is just one of several guys on the Eastside squad who has stepped up in 2012-13 as it continues to improve.

"We have three legitimate guys who can score and some guys off the bench who play with energy," Freeman said. "Last year, they didn't really understand the team concept they had been brought up in a system where one guy is going to get the ball."

It showed Tuesday night, with Eastside making more diagonal passes and moving the ball one extra time. The Eagles have three more games and two tournaments before starting subregion play against Monroe Area on Jan. 8 but appear to be on their way to a successful run toward another postseason bid.

"We work on being better every day," Freeman said. "If they mastered something, we've got something else to work on and then go back to what they've mastered."