For the last three-plus years, eight members of the East Ridge boys' basketball team have learned, labored and lamented together as friends, just as much as teammates. Now as the halfway point of this year's District 6-AA high school season nears, that group has shown that familiarity isn't breeding contempt, but success.
To many people's surprise, but not their own, the Pioneers are firmly entrenched in second place in the district standings, one game behind Tyner (6-0) and two games ahead of Brainerd (4-3) and Howard (4-3). Since losing to Class AAA teams Ooltewah and Siegel in Hall of Fame games to start the season, East Ridge has gone 11-3 and takes a four-game winning streak into tonight's 7:30 home game against Central.
Guards Greg Besley and Eric Traylor and forward Chris Green are the captains. They're among the eight seniors who have been through highs and lows together.
As sophomores they were part of a junior varsity team that went 17-2. But last year they struggled to get to the .500 mark at the varsity level. Coach Jon Goddard accepted blame for that.
"I made the schedule incredibly tough," Goddard said. "In addition to playing Howard, Brainerd, Tyner and Red Bank -- all of them good teams in our district last year -- we played East Literature and McCallie, both state-tournament teams, and Science Hill, who won 30 games. We weren't quite ready for that. When things aren't going well, you can lose some confidence."
Not this time. Like the veteran team it is, East Ridge shook off those two early-season drubbings -- the players who played football had just joined the basketball team at that time -- and now looks like it has things rolling.
"All of us have been together since ninth grade," Traylor said. "No one has left us. We've all stuck together. One of the big things is we don't get down. We never point fingers or start blaming each teammate. Instead we pick each other up, keep our heads up and do what we do."
What the Pioneers do is try to push the ball and spread the floor offensively. Defensively they're out to create turnovers.
"We want to try to make teams play our tempo. Tyner was really good about not letting us do that," Goddard said of the Rams, who held East Ridge to a season-low 42 points. "We want to try to make teams play a little faster. We want to open up the floor, then penetrate and kick it to our shooters. We're averaging about seven 3s a game."
Those shooters are abundant, too. Sophomore Eddie Hitchcock paces a balanced-scoring attack at about 14 points per game. Besley, who is coming off an 18-point performance in Tuesday's victory at Brainerd, leads the team in assists and steals.
"Being the point guard, I've got control of the team," Besley said. "Sometimes I have to calm myself down. Last year I was a shooting guard. Now being the point guard, I don't have to shoot that much."
East Ridge is led in rebounding by Alfonzo Cox's nine per game, but the ones who play down low aren't particularly big. Green plays power forward at slightly less than 6-foot.
"We're small, so we're more like a running team," Green said. "We look to run and gun. We've got a lot of shooters. Everybody has a 3-point shot. I just look to rebound, hustle and get the ball out so we can take off. It's a battle for me every night."
The Pioneers are coming up on a key stretch in their season, beginning with tonight's game. They play a district game at Hixson on Tuesday and another Thursday when they host East Hamilton. Then they have eight days to get ready for a rematch with Tyner, which gave them their only loss in six league games.
Ultimately they'll have to face Howard and Brainerd again -- teams they beat by a combined 10 points.
"They're going to want us," Besley said, "but we know what to do to beat them again."
Winning the district regular season is foremost on the minds of the senior captains, but they can't help but dream of the possibility of earning their way to the state tournament. It's something they talked about when they first got to the high school, and now it's their last go-around.
"We had a good summer and all of our scrimmages went well," Goddard said. "We've got to have 10 people playing like they're capable of playing for it all to come together. They've all played together in middle school. They know each other and what they're capable of.
"We've got to play smarter at times. If we can get over that hump, who knows?"