Eastside’s boys’ team will look nothing like it did last year when it hits the floor tomorrow at Alcovy. That’s probably not a bad thing.
Gregory Freeman was hired during the offseason and will replace Michael Gerald who will be an assistant coach at Alcovy. Freeman comes off a successful run at Lamar County where he guided the Trojans to the state playoffs the past two years and to the Elite Eight last year after winning the Region 4-AA championship.
The Eagles on the other hand haven’t had much success recently. They went 8-17 and failed to make the state playoffs in 2010. But this year’s team is almost entirely new. And by new that means from the head coach on down to the attitude.
“With only one returning varsity player with any significant playing time in Ben Miller, these kids are all new to this level and to my system,” Freeman said. “You can expect them to play hard and learn and improve from game to game.”
Donovan Barrett and Devin Gerald led the Eagles offensively last year but both players are gone — Barrett to graduation and Gerald to transfer. Miller is the lone returning starter. That means Freeman will enter his first season with a young group short on experience. That too may not be a bad thing. With no preconceived notions of losing, everyone gets a fresh start.
“I expect to win,” Freeman said. “They have never won. Last year (at Lamar County) the team expected to be good. They bought into the system and thrived in it.”
Freeman expects to implement a similar up-tempo system that Alcovy runs with a lot of full court press defense and run outs on offense. The fast pace is designed to utilize smaller, quicker players to create then score off of turnovers. But Xs and Os are one thing. Freeman said none of that makes a difference if the team doesn’t change the way it approaches the game mentally.
“My players have to change whatever expectations they have to mine,” Freeman said. “That is the only way they will get past what they have been.”
Freeman is hopeful the Eagles can be competitive right away. Eastside finished toward the bottom of the region standings last year. They were second to last in scoring but did give up the fewest points per game by a good margin.
Having multiple scoring options is one of his goals. The Eagles depended heavily on Barrett and Gerald last year and when those two weren’t on, it made things very tough
Henry County is expected to be the preseason favorite after posting a 14-2 region record. Eagles Landing will again be a tough matchup as will Drew and Stockbridge. While Freeman would like nothing more than to get the Eagles back to the state playoffs, he knows he has a lot of work to do.
“I would love to be in that conversation (with those teams),” he said. “My main objective is to make the Class AAA playoffs and in seeing the big picture. That will become the goal of these players as well. (We have to) change the perception of what it means to play basketball at Eastside High School.”
Eastside opens the season tomorrow at Alcovy. The game starts immediately after the girls play.
Eastside’s girls had a banner season in 2010-11. They won a school-record 23 games and captured the school’s first state playoff win. Thanks to the culmination of a senior class that played together since freshman, the Lady Eagles nearly won their first region championship. But that was then. When the Lady Eagles tip off tomorrow, things will be much different.
From a personnel standpoint, Eastside’s girls are in a similar situation as the boys. They aren’t faced with the extra pressure of a coaching change but they will be saddled with a young team.
Longtime fixtures Raven Williams, Jjade Cook and Paige Alexander graduated, leaving voids in several key positions including both starting guards. Fortunately the Lady Eagles do return Alexia Somerset, Eastside’s second-leading scorer and best rebounder.
Eastside will certainly need Somerset if they are going to repeat their success from last season. The Lady Eagles finished the season 23-6 and compiled a 13-3 record in region play, good enough to earn the second seed in the region tournament. They parlayed that into a region championship berth and nearly won the school’s first region title before falling to Drew 46-45.
Sandy Creek will be the team to beat. The Patriots ran the table in Region 4-AAA but lost to Drew in the region championship. Eagles Landing and Stockbridge will also be tough opponents. Eastside’s success will be predicated on how fast they can come together.
Last year’s team was able to get off to a good start and keep that momentum going for much of the season. They won their first 11 games and had two other five-game winning streaks. They beat Newton twice and split with Alcovy and after beating Peach County in the opening round of the state playoffs, caught a break with lower seeded Butler. Only Butler was a better team than advertised.
Somerset returns as a dual threat. She can score inside and out plus rebound and is Eastside’s best interior defender. Several young players will fill the voids left by Cook and Williams and it could be trial by fire early on.
The Lady Eagles will be tested right away. They face Alcovy tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. While the Lady Eagles beat Eastside by two last year, the Lady Tigers can score in bunches. It will be a tough test but a good measuring stick early on.