Expectations are nice, but meeting them is better.
Unicoi County’s girls basketball team entered Wednesday having six days without a game, leaving plenty of time to prepare and focus for what the players and coaches hope is the first key step toward a banner season.
The Lady Blue Devils’ next opponent is Elizabethton, a team they haven’t beaten since the 2008 District 1-AA semifinals. The Lady Cyclones have won 10 straight games in the series since then.
However, Unicoi has five wins in its first six games this season, including a 2-1 mark against three tough opponents in the Grainger Classic at Rutledge. So the Blue Devils seem to be on solid footing for their first Three Rivers Conference test of the season Tuesday in Erwin.
“The team is doing a good job of playing as a unit,” said Joshua Epperson, who is 27-10 in two seasons as Unicoi’s head coach. “They are doing a better job with the up tempo, and pushing the ball down the floor. But the biggest thing is they’ve done a lot better job on the boards.”
It starts with a trio of seniors who have plenty of varsity experience. Rilie King and Emmie Thompson are fourth-year starters while Mikayla Bennett is also in her fourth season on the varsity.
Veteran play was a big reason for the 65-55 win over Grainger, said Epperson.
“Grainger is probably the best team I’ve seen other than Science Hill,” he said. “It was close the entire game, and experience is why we won.”
However, none of the Unicoi County players have experienced a win over Elizabethton. The margins have gotten wider through the years with the Cyclones winning by 5 in 2008; 6, 5, and 7 in 2009; 16, 27 and 15 in 2010; and 18, 27 and 26 last year.
Things do look different this year as the Blue Devils enter as the favorite to win the Three Rivers Conference. They are off a strong start while the Cyclones have lost four of their first six games, including Hall of Champions contests.
“It will definitely be a mental game,” said King, a 5-foot-9 guard. “Elizabethton is a good team and we have to be ready.”
But it’s also a game the Lady Blue Devils can’t put too much emphasis on because the most important games are in February.
“We have to look at every game like it’s important,” said Thompson, a 5-9 guard. “It’s not any more exciting. We have to go into every game prepared and focused.”
And that shouldn’t be a problem, said Epperson.
“People understand how good Elizabethton is,” said Epperson. “Our girls will have no problem getting up.”
Unicoi has been solid offensively this season as the starting five is averaging 56 points per game. Leading the way is junior guard Emily Edwards, who is averaging 18.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and totaled 28 points in the win over Grainger.
“Emily has done what we think she’s capable of doing,” said Epperson. “And the other girls help her out because we’ve got five who can score.”
Edwards is also shooting an amazing 79 percent from 3-point land, hitting 11 of 14 attempts so far this season.
Also stepping up has been junior post Chelsey Gardner. She is averaging 9.3 points and 5.8 rebounds and totaled 21 points in Tuesday’s win over Chuckey-Doak.
“Chelsey has been huge for us,” said Epperson. “She fouled out three of our first four games, but she is making strides and understanding what she can and can’t do. She is undersized for a post, but she makes up for it in heart.”
King averages 13.2 points per game and leads the team with 6.2 rebounds each contest. Bennett, a 5-7 guard, scores eight points per game while Thompson is averaging seven.
It’s a nice mix of teamwork.
“We’ve been working together better this year,” said King. “Everybody on the team wants it more. We’re more focused and everyone has one goal, trying to make it to the state tournament.”
Said Thompson, “I think coming into the season we knew we had to play as a team. Every individual understands that, and we know what we have to do. We share the ball and we’re not selfish.”
For many years, the Blue Devils have been stopped short in the region tournament. They haven’t reached the sectional since 2003.
Thompson said the goal is to break back through this year.
“Obviously the main goal is to the get to the state,” she said. “But we know if we give everything we have and come out and give 100 percent, that’s the main thing other than winning.”
King, Thompson and Bennett have been through many games together, and they want to finish the year off right.
“We’ve been playing since we were little girls,” said Thompson. “Our parents did it, and our grandparents did it. It’s what we’ve lived.”
Said King, “I love playing high school basketball. It’s practically my life. We live at the gym.”