By Doug Gorman
Just a month ago, the jury was still out when it came to figuring out how successful the Eagle's Landing Christian boys basketball team was going to be in 2010-11.
The squad was still awaiting the arrival of nine football players who in were in the middle of the team's best season in school history, a 12-1 record and a trip to the quarterfinals of the Class A playoffs.
It's unmatched football success was a joyous occasion for the school community, but deepened the mystery of just how quickly those missing players could switch out of their football mode into a basketball mentality.
Add to the equation new coach Jay Covington was still trying to put into place his new up-tempo game plan, and there were plenty of questions surrounding the basketball version of the Chargers.
In the first game after the football players returned, the Chargers blew a 12-point lead to Union Grove and lost to the Wolverines 79-72. It was a clear sign the two-sport athletes weren't in basketball shape.
ELCA also lost 68-61 to Henry County.
Now things look much brighter for the Chargers.
ELCA is off to a 9-2 start. Victories include a 73-70 win over Starr's Mill.
The team received a huge confidence boost when it won the Oneonta Holiday Classic in Alabama just days after Christmas, putting together four straight wins against teams from all over the South.
"You kind of saw football shape and basketball shape were two different things," Covington said. "We like that up-tempo game and it has taken us a little while to come together, but that is why that tournament was so important to us. It got us out of our element and away from outside distractions. It was a great team building time."
Senior Scott Barlow loves the new coach's style of play.
"We all adjusted to it quickly," he said. "We love that style of play."
Alex Williams, one of the football players who returned to the basketball team after the school's successful season on the gridiron, said the tournament showed him a couple of things.
"It was great to win it, but it also really helped us come together and bond," he said. "We really didn't know how everybody played. That tournament made us realize what everybody could do. We started out slow, but now things are starting to pick up."
The Chargers returned from the Christmas break with a one-point win on Tuesday, beating Locust Grove 59-58.
ELCA has now won eight of its last nine games and six in a row.
The last month is a sign ELCA is starting to buy into Covington's fast paced brand of basketball--bring the ball up court quickly and get back on defense, force turnovers and start the process all over again.
So far, it's working. The Chargers are outscoring opponents 65 to 53 through their first 11 games.
Covington took over for long-time coach Buck Hunter and the transition has been smooth. Hunter was not a full-time employee of ELCA and the school decided to go in a different direction.
Hunter now serves as an assistant coach on Curt Miller's staff at Ola.
One of the reasons might be Covington was already part of the school community.
The math teacher served as an assistant football coach when he first came to the school, and all the players knew him.
"It's been exciting," said senior shooting guard Taylor Echols. "He knows basketball. He loves basketball. The expectations are definitely high for us right now."
Senior Matt Rochell, who is expected to head to the Air Force Academy, knows his future is in football, but he's excited to help contribute to the team's basketball success.
"It was great that we could go out there and win all four games, it was great to see the football and basketball guys come together," Rochell said.
Covington grew up around basketball and brought coaching experience to the job. However, he had been away from the game for a couple of seasons.
Now he is glad to be back.
"I didn't realize until I had those first few practices how much I missed being around the game," he said.
Friday night the Chargers play at Strong Rock Christian. The Patriots are in just the first year of GHSA competition, but the private school in Locust Grove could become ELCA's biggest rival in a few years.
"We look forward to playing them. You never know what will happen," Covington said. "We think is will be a really good rivalry down the road."