EVENSVILLE, Tenn. - After years of struggling, the Rhea County girls' basketball program has improved its record in each of the past five seasons. Things weren't made any easier for the Lady Eagles this season, as they moved into District 6-AAA, where each of the other five programs have participated in at least one state tournament in their histories - something the Lady Eagles have never experienced.
Yet they haven't missed a beat.
The Lady Eagles have fought their way to a 19-6 record and a 6-3 mark in district play. Led by the trio of senior Julie Brown, junior Amber Levi and sophomore Jessee Wallis, Rhea potentially can be the second seed in the district tournament, which would equate to a bye and an automatic spot in the Region 3 tournament against an old District 5 foe.
Brown, one of three seniors on the team, went through a freshman season in which the Lady Eagles won 11 games. The improvement went to 13 two seasons ago and 19 wins last season. A win tonight against Cookeville or Monday against Sweetwater would give the Lady Eagles their first 20-win season in recent memory.
"We weren't as competitive my freshman season. We weren't a threat to anybody," said Brown, who went over the 1,000-point mark in her career last Friday against Cumberland County. "Now little kids come up to us and they want to be Lady Eagles, and it's been amazing to be a part of the huge transformation. I knew it might happen, but there were times early in my career when I doubted it because we were trying so hard and it wasn't happening.
"Now it's all coming together for us."
Brown is the team's third-leading scorer, at 11.1 points per game, while adding 5.4 rebounds. Levi leads the team with 15.3 points and six rebounds per game, while hitting 42 percent from 3-point range, and Wallis is averaging 12.2 points.
"I don't think people were ready for us as a strong basketball team," Brown said. "They don't know about all the hard work -- crazy running, workouts and extra practices -- we went through, so now we want to show that we can be something."
Rhea coach Shane Johnston knew there was a great deal of history in programs such as Cookeville, Cumberland County, Warren County, White County and even relatively new Stone Memorial, so the biggest job he had was keeping his players focused on their goals yet occasionally stopping to "smell the roses."
"Any time you move toward the midstate in girls' basketball, you know you're going to see some quality teams," Johnston said. "Like any team in the state, we've had nights we want back and quarters we'd like to have back, but the main thing we've tried to do this season is to enjoy the ride and enjoy the fruits of our labor.
"Having so many people in this community interested in the program has been fun."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.