SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. - A transformation is taking place at Richard Hardy Memorial School.
The girls' high school basketball program at the K-12 school has had a long-standing reputation as a pushover for opponents. The Times Free Press published a story on Jan. 25, 2008, about the girls' resilience in continuing to show up despite being 0-16 with a 54-21 loss to District 6-A opponent Sale Creek as their closest game.
How times have changed.
The Richard Hardy girls traveled Tuesday to Princeton, Ala., and defeated Paint Rock Valley 76-23 to improve to 10-4.
Second-year coach Kelby Ferrell is a former South Pittsburg player who spent 16 years coaching girls' AAU basketball in Murfreesboro. He recalled his first practice at Richard Hardy.
"I didn't know how bad it was," Ferrell said. "I said something about denying the ball and they didn't know what I was talking about. I had to break things down in the simplest of terms. But there came a point where now they started getting it. Now we can start building."
The Lady Hawks have continued building. Beating Sequatchie County and Marion County and winning at South Pittsburg are among the firsts in program history achieved this season.
The Lady Hawks average 59.5 points per game and are led in scoring by Hannah Raulston at 14.5. However, she injured a knee Monday at Lookout Valley and learned Thursday that she had a torn ACL and meniscus and will miss the rest of the season.
"I've never had a winning season in my career," said Raulston, who began playing basketball at the school in sixth grade. "The way we've been playing, I think we've earned Richard Hardy a lot more respect. I think people are starting to look out for us now."
Katie Rogers is a junior wing whose basketball career started in seventh grade. She remembers some of the low points in the program's history because her sister, Erin, was an eighth-grader on that 2007-08 team.
"It was awful," Rogers said. "They pretty much played in an empty gym. If you wanted a seat, you didn't have to hurry to get to the game because there were only about 10 other faces in there."
Rogers credited Kristen Lawson, former middle school coach at Richard Hardy, for getting the current core group of Lady Hawks headed in the right direction. Ferrell has taken measures to boost them further, even offering to pay half for any girl willing to attend a two-day skills camp at Middle Tennessee State University in the offseason.
"Every girl went," Ferrell said. "They're trying and they're progressing. I just draw up an offense and a defense. What I have to have is players to carry it out. And that's what I have."
Rogers said the only camp any player attended previously was a Fellowship of Christian Athletes team camp.
"That was rough," she said of the MTSU camp, "but it was good."
Ball-handling and shooting were areas Ferrell addressed immediately. Rogers said one of Ferrell's requirements was for each player to shoot 2,000 free throws before the season started.
Raulston missed time with concussions as a freshman and sophomore and missed 10 games last year with a hamstring injury. That forced players such as current junior Sonisha Provins and sophomore reserve guard Jade Case to become better ball-handlers, which Ferrell expects will help this time around should opponents press. Freshman Kyla Braden, a transfer from Grundy County, will start at the point in Raulston's absence.
"It's just so hard trying to change the culture at this school," Ferrell said. "For years it's been like, 'We're just playing to have fun.' I want to change that. You have to come and you have to work. I'm going to play the ones who can help me and help me now. If they're the younger ones, that just helps us later on, too. My decisions aren't always going to be popular ones."
Richard Hardy's starting post players are senior Carley Layne and junior Makayla Billingsley. Layne is the second-leading scorer at 12.3 points per game, and she and Raulston each have averaged a little more than seven rebounds per game.
Layne is the daughter of assistant coach Carl Layne. She started playing basketball in fourth grade and moved up to varsity as an eighth-grader in 2009 after the middle school season ended. Her goal is to look back at the span of her career as a climb from worst to first.
"We're going to try to win district," Layne said. "We want to go to region. I think we have a good chance. We're almost guaranteed to be a 2 or 3 seed in the district tournament. It's our time to shine. We've been underdogs for so long. This year we're bringing it and showing we're not underdogs anymore."