Sometimes, winning basketball games isn't quite as simple as putting the little orange ball through the hoop.
Sometimes, a coach has to battle more off-court issues than on-court, and it's those issues that can hamper a once storied program. Such has been the case for the Belpre Golden Eagles, who have gone from winning just seven games a year ago to double that total this year while claiming the Tri-Valley Conference-Hocking Division title.
The Golden Eagles' 51-31 win over Eastern Tuesday night guaranteed at least a share of the league crown. "The history in Belpre, they've always had tremendous talent. Belpre has never been short on talent when it comes to basketball. The key was getting the egos out, getting the selfishness out and getting the kids to want to play together," said first-year Belpre boys' basketball coach Jordan Thornhill.
JEFF BAUGHAN Special to The Times
Belpre's Bryce Pittenger passes between two South Gallia players Friday after driving towards the basket. Belpre scored a 74-58 victory.
Getting rid of the personality issues that were plaguing the once proud program, which has gone to the state tournament three times since 1990, is but one step towards restoring the glory of Belpre basketball.
It has, however, been the biggest. "They're putting the effort things first, and then the individual things later," Thornhill said. "When you've got a group of kids that enjoy playing together, it's nice."
Belpre has endured a considerably rough stretch since its last appearance in the state tournament in 2001. Numbers have declined, and the Golden Eagles went from one of Washington County's best teams to one that was seldom on the winning side of the scoreboard.
"When the program's in such shambles, it kills your pee wee. It kills your junior high. It kills your crowd," Thornhill said.
But one year has made a vast difference, as Belpre has already displayed a much improved team.
"They believed in each other. They believed in us (coaching staff). We're sitting at (14-5) and a good chance to win the TVC-Hocking," Thornhill said.
A win over Waterford at home on Friday will give the Golden Eagles the TVC-Hocking crown outright.
Part of the reason for the quick turnaround is because Thornhill is only 23-years old, and is hailed as one of the best players to go through the Golden Eagle program.
It gives him a unique bond with his players, and they're more inclined to listen as he can provide advice far beyond the game of basketball on everything from girlfriends to school work.
"I can relate to them firsthand. I was in their shoes just a few years ago," Thornhill said.
Once he had his players buying into the concept of putting the team ahead of the individual, Thornhill had no doubts they would have the success they've enjoyed this winter.
After all, the Golden Eagles have great athletes on the floor and when they work together as one unit they can be nearly unstoppable. "Any team can beat any group of individuals any day of the week," Thornhill said.
Belpre hasn't just been putting more wins in the record book this season either. The Golden Eagles are putting up quality wins.
Belpre has picked up a non conference win over the Marietta Tigers, who are 10-8 playing in the potent East Central Ohio League, and also has league wins at Southern and at Waterford.
Of the five losses the Golden Eagles have, three of them have come to teams that have a combined five losses between them in the Warren Warriors and Fort Frye Cadets.
"(Five) losses, but I guess they're quality losses. We beat all the teams we should and we beat a couple teams that didn't even anticipate us competing in the game," Thornhill said.
That essence of competition is another new vibe to this year's Golden Eagles.
In past years, Belpre struggled to remain competitive against certain teams, some of whom were less athletically gifted than the Golden Eagles.
It's a totally different attitude in Belpre this year, and much of that goes to Thornhill and assistant coach Todd Engle, who have brought a fiery and competitive nature to the gym.
They've also brought a commitment to defense that the Golden Eagle players are accepting.
"They really buy into what I say. They're extremely coachable and they want to be good players. When you put those things together you can have a pretty successful team," Thornhill said.
Defense has been one of the focal points for Thornhill and Engle with the Golden Eagles, and the players on the court have stepped up.
Stats provided to The Marietta Times show Belpre is giving up just 57.6 points per game while scoring 61.3 a contest.
The defense has also been the key to the steady improvement shown by the offense.
"We can rely on our defense. It's come through more often than not," Thornhill said. "In late game situations when you know you can get stops, it just takes the pressure off your offense. When you don't have any pressure offensively, then you can achieve good things."
Achieving good things has been the mantra for the Golden Eagles this year.
But even though they've exceeded many of the expectations for 2011-12, there's still work to be done.
"We're happy with the turnaround. We're still not done yet," Thornhill said.