By Brian Paglia
On the first day of Eagle's Landing's 7:30 a.m. basketball practices this season, Golden Eagles senior point guard Javan Wells and his teammates were talking with coach Clay Crump. They began to talk about their goals and what they envisioned this season could become after a dismal 6-18 season a year ago.
Then Crump drew his team's attention to the Eagle's Landing gym rafters. There hanging above the bleachers and court were banners for every school sport that had qualified for its respective state tournament, as is the custom of high school athletics.
Every team at Eagle's Landing had a banner. Every team except one: Boys basketball.
"We looked at the banners," Wells said, "and we were trying to see where ours was. Didn't see one."
The boys basketball team at Eagle's Landing (16-9, 12-6 Region 4-AAA) has the ignominious distinction of being the only athletic team without an appearance in a state tournament since the school opened in 1991, a distinction they can erase with a victory over Rutland (14-10, 9-8) on Thursday in the Region 4-AAA tournament at Locust Grove.
The feeling, Golden Eagles players said, is that that reputation is about to change.
"I think this is the team that's finally going to do it, finally get to state," Wells said. "I think we can do stuff in state. Our goal is to get to state, but I think once we get there we can really make some noise. I really do."
The force behind Eagle's Landing's remarkable turnaround from a basketball afterthought into a force in its region is actually rather simple. An influx of pure basketball players devoted to and focused on the game of basketball gave the Golden Eagles a disciplined, committed and hungry roster.
A year ago, Eagle's Landing was more a collection of athletes than basketball players. Eight members of the team were on the football team that made the Class AAA state tournament.
After a first-round loss, they joined the basketball team the morning of its preseason scrimmage. There was no time to assimilate, for Eagle's Landing had three games to play in a tournament.
"We just never got roles defined well," Crump said, "and we didn't get time to do that because we were thrown right into games."
But everything began differently for Eagle's Landing this season. Crump had his entire team for summer workouts, whereas several players weren't available last summer due to injuries. He took the team on a retreat to Camp Kaleo in Forsyth where they bunked in log cabins together, fell out of canoes and jumped at the sight of rats.
Crump scheduled the start of the season later to give his team even more time to coalesce.
"Last year was a tough year," Eagle's Landing senior guard Warren Staples said. "Not so much coaching, it was just chemistry and things like that, and commitment. We didn't have that last year. This year it's so much better."
Eagle's Landing's talent is much improved, too. Wells has evolved from an errant jumpshooter as a junior into a slashing go-to scorer as a senior; he scored a career-high 29 points Monday against Mary Persons.
The most obvious difference opponents encounter is in the post. That's where 6-foot-8 freshman Desmond Ringer often resides and gives Eagle's Landing a force in the paint it hasn't had in years past.
"It's just a blessing to have a 6-foot-8 freshman that's more mature than a freshman should be," Staples said. "We're asking him to come in and basically help carry this team to state. He's done a great job."
The tempting sentiment is that a 6-foot-8 freshman could be the focal point for several Eagle's Landing state tournament teams. Crump said Ringer's offensive game isn't developed enough to handle that burden yet.
But that's fine with Ringer. He understands his role as a rebounder and defender in the post. And that his role is crucial to helping his senior teammates accomplish a historic feat for the boys basketball program.
"I just want to help them go to state and see their dreams of getting a state championship ring," Ringer said. "I know it's they're last shot, but I'm just going to do anything I can to make them happy so they can be sent off the right way."