By Cameron Freeman
You hear it all the time in sports: The game is 90% mental. Or: How are you going to win when you aren't right within?
For an Eastside High girls basketball team that finished with an underwhelming 5-19 mark during the 2016-17 campaign, developing an inward mentality of winning doesn't happen overnight in the middle of November.
Developing that mindset begins right now, during the summer, as the Lady Eagles are already spending time on the court early and often, preparing themselves to reverse the culture of the program and their outlook on basketball as a whole.
Even Eastside girls head coach Gladys King decided to do some things differently in order to encourage different results. King, entering her third season at the program’s helm, started taking her team through daily summer workouts in Eastside’s gym, as well as escorting her team to a few summer camps like the two-day outing at Georgia State University last week.
“It’s just doing things to get a basketball in their hands,” King said. “These are the kinds of things I’m used to as a coach and even when I was playing. Hard work during the offseason and just getting these girls in a year-round basketball frame of mind.”
Part of that includes the addition of Covington Parks and Recreation director Anthony Avery – a fixture in the Covington hoops community – who agreed to come in during the summer and help add to what King and her staff were already doing.
“Anyone who’s been around Covington for any amount of time know the Avery boys,” King said. “And it was a thing where you want someone to come in and just reinforce the message. Sometimes the kids think that when I say certain things, that’s just Coach talking. But it tends to sink in when they hear it from another voice, and then I come up to them and say, ‘Haven’t you heard that from somewhere before?’”
Avery watched the Eagles play a few times last season, and he was more than glad to help add some extra building blocks onto King’s program.
"It's hard for young kids when they lose consistently,” Avery said when asked what he expects this Eastside girls team to improve upon. “Things kind of get into their minds to where they don't work as hard, so just trying to change the mentality and get them to work harder and more together.”
The Lady Eagles haven’t witnessed a winning season since the 2013-2014 campaign – a fairly modest 14-13 season in which this current group of seniors was still in middle school. However, this doesn't stop Avery or King from believing that this year's group can turn it around and continue to practice, compete, and challenge other teams with a winning mindset.
In fact, King says she sees that mindset starting to take shape already.
“I feel really good,” King said. “I mean, I’m very happy with the turnout of these girls here. We’ve had almost 16 girls out here every time we come out to practice. I’m very pleased with the outcome. The girls are working hard, working on the fundamentals of basketball, doing a lot of running and just, like I said, getting hands on the basketball which is something they don’t normally do. So this speaks a lot to their desire to improve.”
The Lady Eagles seem primed to improve, as the team lost no players to graduation, and will return a more seasoned and experienced core, including sophomore wing Alysee Dobbs, arguably the most prolific scorer in that core last season.
Dobbs is looking to build upon her stellar 2016-2017 season in which she averaged 20 points per game, earning herself first-team all-county and Freshman of the Year honors. Dobbs realizes the importance of learning to trust not only herself, but her teammates as well.
“The more we trust each other, the better we play as a team,” Dobbs said. “And if we trust each other better in a game, then we work better together.”
At times, Eastside looked ready to compete with teams, but often times, unforced turnovers and careless mistakes were enough to open the door for the opposition to pull away. But King hopes that experience playing together as well as trusting in each other’s abilities will prevent some of those same mistakes from happening in the coming season, which will keep the Eagles in a position to win more games.
“They used to have the summers off,” King said. “But I’ve told them they have to put the time in and the practice in in order to gell together, play better together and just be better and build a program.”
Sophomore guard T’naiah Douglas doesn’t seem to mind putting in the extra effort.
“We practice hard, work hard, and we just get better each day,” Douglas said.
While this squad focuses on the present and winning now, players like senior captain Nia Davis also understand the importance of setting the standard for this Eastside girls basketball program going forward.
“We want them to come in comfortable and we want them to come in focused and ready to play at the level that we’re already at,” said Davis, a 2016-17 second-team all-county selection.
“We don’t see (the young players) as babies,” Davis continued we’re going to get them better and better this year. Especially with me being a senior now, they’re going to take the lead,” Davis said.
This bunch is not discouraged at all by the past. Instead they are looking to turn the misfortunes of the past into motivation for the future, and they plan to do that by embracing the challenges with a winning mindset.
“My mother used to say that you’ve got to crawl before you walk,” King said. “Well, I think we’ve been in the crawling stages in these first two years. But I think we’re ready to start trying to walk now.”
“I think everybody else is going to be surprised at what we can do this year,” Davis said. “I think we’re ready for it, to be honest.”
*Gabriel Stovall also contributed to this report.