Southern Oregon has been home to many prominent wrestling duals over the years, mostly thanks to the history of programs like Crater, Eagle Point...
Eagle Point administrators were very up front with Paul Bell when he interviewed for the school's girls basketball head coaching position two years ago.
Their words weren't meant to be disrespectful, but it was paramount that Bell understand exactly what he would be getting into if he were to move his family all the way from east Texas to their tight-knit Oregon community.
In a no-holds barred moment, Bell said he was told that the open position was for one of the worst girls basketball programs in Oregon, so why would he ever want such a job. Try as they might, the Eagles hadn't won more than four games since an 8-16 run in 2004 and routinely found themselves on the wrong end of a lopsided scoreboard.
The thing is, Bell did want the job.
It didn't matter that the Eagles had gone a woeful 13-104 in their five previous seasons, or that they hadn't earned double-digit wins in a season since 2003 (11-13).
"I'm not one of these people who believes in coincidence," Bell said Monday. "I believe I'm here for a purpose and this felt like where I was supposed to be. I never questioned it."
These days the only question being fielded in Eagle Point in regards to the girls basketball program is how high these Eagles can fly.
After struggling through a 3-19 campaign during Bell's first season in 2012, this year's squad has been part of an epic turnaround for the program. Eagle Point enters tonight's home game against Crater with a 13-3 record and No. 6 ranking in the Class 5A state power rankings.
"It's one of those things where at the beginning of the season I kind of had a feeling we could do something special," said Bell. "It's just so hard, though, being as young as we are, you never really know what's going to happen but, these girls, every day they come to try to get better. They practice so hard and play so hard, it's kind of a good thing they're young. They don't know they're maybe not supposed to be doing all that they're doing."
"One thing I tell them is don't be afraid to be great, don't be afraid to be special and don't be afraid to do things people haven't done here before," added the coach.
The Eagles certainly seem to be following his instructions.
Eagle Point's only losses this season have come on the road to North Valley (49-42) and twice to 4A power Mazama. The Eagles are outscoring teams 56-47 on average, and likely earned their biggest win of the season last Friday when freshman point guard Adrienne Wood scored in the final seconds to top Class 6A Grants Pass, 51-49.
"That was an exciting one for us," said sophomore wing Sydney May. "I think it's given our team a lot more confidence, too."
One year ago, Bell said the Eagles upset Roseburg and didn't really know how to celebrate afterward. They've gotten more adept at it this time around.
"It seems like they're having a blast," said the second-year coach, "and it's great to see kids smiling when they come to practice and smiling when they leave. They're getting excited about their accomplishments. The wins are great but seeing the smiles afterward is even better."
This for a program that endured a 33-game losing streak in the Southern Oregon Conference before finally having it snapped in 2001 with a win over North Medford, which had beaten the Eagles by 49 points earlier in the season.
Eagle Point's only chance at a .500 season over the past decade came in 2003 but they lost in overtime to Klamath Union, which had been winless in the SOC, in the season finale to finish 11-13.
From 2002 to 2012, the Eagles won only 18 percent of their games (46-212), so it's safe to say something incredible is going on these days.
"It's just a really good feeling for us as a team to know that we're changing things," said May, who averaged 16 points and 16 rebounds during a runner-up showing at the Southern Oregon Subaru Christmas Classic. "I think all the incoming players really wanted to change what was going on and make a difference in the team. I didn't expect this fast of a turnaround but I think the team has really pulled together and we know now we're capable of more than we thought that we were."
Senior Casie Johnson has been a mainstay as a four-year starter for the Eagles and is finally getting to reap some rewards for her hard work and annual status as the squad's top player. For the first time at Eagle Point, the 6-foot standout post won't have to endure a season with at least 19 losses.
"It doesn't just fall on Casie anymore," said Bell, "and I think that's been the biggest thing that's helped her and helped us play a little more loose as a team."
May said Johnson and fellow seniors Vanessa Pena and Kourtney Hoefft have really stepped up and taken on a leadership role for the team, shouldering added responsibility while also encouraging their younger teammates.
May and Johnson have been joined on the starting unit by Wood, junior Kayla Neilson and freshman Bailey Cooper, but Kinsey Bradshaw has also had a big influence off the bench with fellow junior Megan Cowden.
"I think a lot of players have come in and stepped up and just wanted to do whatever they can to help the team out," said May. "We have a widespread skill level on our team."
That skill level has been a work in progress spearheaded by Bell, who instituted more weightlifting and practice plans through the winter break and created more opportunity for offseason training with open gyms. Still, none of that would have mattered had the girls not been willing to put the work in.
"All these things that they've never really done before, I think the girls bought into the program and have done everything that I've asked them to do," said Bell.
"It's not just the girls, though," added the coach. "To turn a program around, obviously the girls have to commit and be dedicated but the parents also have to be committed and dedicated to keep the drama down and help change the mindset. And, third, you have to have support from the administration and (athletic director) and we've gotten all three going in the right direction. It's starting to feel more like a family and I'm enjoying it and we're all happy to win some games this year."
May was a varsity performer for Bell last year so she hasn't known any difference at the varsity level, but she believes the head coach has been instrumental in raising the program's reputation.
"I think he's brought a lot to the program," she said. "He just kinda believes that we can win games, and when you have a leader who's bringing that kind of intensity it does a lot more to help the girls also bring their intensity and just win."
May said the Eagles' confidence began to grow when one win turned to two and then three and so on until suddenly a winning streak was born.
"I think that's when we kinda realized that winning can become contagious for us and we can really do it," she said.
And as the wins have mounted, so has the pride in being part of the girls basketball program at Eagle Point.
"It feels wonderful," May said of the kudos the Eagles have received from their teachers and peers.
Keeping up their current pace will be a challenge as the 5A squad enters a run of 6A games that includes dates with Crater, North Medford, Roseburg and defending state champion South Medford, but May said she doesn't believe her team will lose faith.
"We've definitely got some hard games coming up but I really think we can keep winning," she said. "It's going to take a lot of hard work and we'll need to practice how we want to play and go hard every day, but we're doing really good this season and hopefully we can keep it going."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry