By Brian Paglia
When Union Grove boys basketball coach Russ Atkins became the Wolverines new head coach last season, he knew his coaching philosophies were dramatically different from those the roster he inherited developed under. Everything changed, from how his players acted on the bench, to how they handled their emotions on the court, to how they conducted a drill during practice.
The results changed, too. Union Grove went from a program that averaged four wins during the previous four seasons to 14 wins and a state tournament appearance for the first time since 2004.
Even with only three contributors from last year's team returning, Atkins' program hasn't missed a beat this season. Union Grove is 8-3 overall, 3-1 in Region 2-AAAAA and playing more consistent basketball then it was a year ago heading into a critical game tonight against county and region rival Luella (10-2, 3-1) at 8:30 p.m.
At this point last season, the Wolverines were 5-7 overall and 2-3 in the region. Four times Union Grove endured stretches of two straight losses or more. They were feeling the pains of assimilating into a new system, Atkins' system. But on Jan. 16, 2009, Union Grove beat Luella, 54-47, ending a seven-game losing streak to the Lions dating back to 2004, and the Wolverines have gone 17-10 since.
Greater consistency has come with greater comfort in Atkins' system.
"I would like to think that the few returning players I did have knew what to expect," Atkins said. "They had a better understanding of what we want to do offensively and defensively. With that being said, we haven't had to spend as much time on the little things as we did last year with it being my first year. I would hope that would have a lot to do with it."
Consider Union Grove's practice Thursday afternoon. At this time last season, Atkins still spent many practices honing the fundamentals of his offense and defense. Rarely did he have the luxury to call set plays.
On Thursday, Atkins introduced a new wrinkle into an offensive set the Wolverines use routinely. Atkins didn't introduce that wrinkle last season until before the Wolverines' first round tournament game against Coffee County.
The Wolverines ran the new play just a few times, the first and second teams each getting a try, and then practice was over.
Atkins was satisfied.
"Team chemistry is getting better," Wolverines sophomore guard Charles Mann said. "We play together really well. We know each other and we trust each other."
"We're working harder in practice," Wolverines senior forward Zavier Preston said.
The Wolverines now know how Atkins expects the little things to be done, which has translated into success. They also now know how he expects them to prepare for a critical region game against its most heated county rival.
"It's just a region game," Mann said, "and we just have to play the same way we did against Stephenson (in a 64-63 victory)."
"I've always taken the approach that the most important game is the next game," Atkins said, "whether that be a county rival or anybody else. ...We've got to play them one at a time. It doesn't really matter what the name is on the jersey."