Such a long time ago.
Those five words were the title of a song the late Jim Croce released in 1972. They also describe the last time a Morgan County girls basketball team had a winning record, and though it’s not been 47 years since the Lady Cougars had a winning record, the 11 since the 2007-08 team won the 62nd District and earned a 16th Region semifinal berth have made for a lengthy stretch.
If your heart bleeds Morgan County royal blue and gold, the more recent history could make you think of a 0-degree cold, stark and overcast January afternoon: a 98-196 record since from 2008-09 to last year’s 7-23, which means past Lady Cougars lost twice as many games as they’ve won, not to mention back-to-back-to-back single-digit winning campaigns (a 7-18 two seasons ago and a 9-19 in ’17-18).
It’s this kind of challenge new coach Kelley Hammonds faces.
Senior forward Grace Litteral says both coach and players are students.
“We’re learning how he wants us to play, and he’s learning how we’re able to play,” Litteral said. “We’ve changed some things (from) the previous years. We’re, like, cutting down in drills.”
At first, Hammonds distilled his strategy to 10 words: no more full-court zone or player-to-player presses.
“We’re gonna try and get back and be a half-court defensive team, try and make people earn baskets by hitting shots,” Hammonds said. “A lot less gambling, try to play more to our skill level instead of run-and-gun all the time.”
Hammonds was an assistant under former Morgan County coach Jeff Brown. His calls his pack-it-in defensive schemes a miniature of a couple philosophies two prominent men’s programs use: defending national champion Virginia and fellow Final Four participant Michigan State.
“We’re gonna mostly play man, a bit like what you saw on TV last year,” Hammonds said. “ … We’re gonna try to guard about 16-foot in pretty tight; we can force jump shots, contest and rebound as best we can, and mix in a little zone.”
Hammonds said opponents’ pressing is particularly problematic, whether it’s grade school, high school, college or the WNBA.
“Like traps, passing out of traps, soon as kids feel that pressure, they want to step backward or put their eyes down,” Hammonds said.
Morgan County averaged just 46.3 points a game last year, but the Lady Cougars have one thing in their favor: nine of the top 10 — including seniors Litteral, Lane Cox, Lyndsay Gullett, Emily Hammonds (the coach’s daughter) and Emily Wilson — return.
“Us five, we’ve played ball together since sixth grade,” Cox said. “We’ve always been able to bounce off each other. … It’s so much better when we’re out there together.”
Coach Hammonds said having so many seniors is “a huge help” in his own transition.
“Kids that have been around for a while know what high school season’s like, how long it is,” he said.
Hammonds is Morgan County’s third coach in as many years. Troy Lee Thomas was the head man last season. Gullett said Hammonds being on staff with Brown has helped this year.
“I think with each coach, they come with a different mindset of how they want to play the game, and that’s been hard to adjust to,” Gullett said. “But as the season goes along, you figure out how the coach likes to run practices and what they want to accomplish in games.
“It’s been difficult, but it gets easier, especially with having Hammonds before in middle school and as a JV coach. We’re used to him.”
Freshman Jenna Hampton led the team with 10.4 points a game, and she hit 57.2% of her field goals, 58.7% of her 3s and grabbed 4.5 rebounds a game.
Litteral and Cox have been working on post moves. Cox wants to “get a lot bigger” in the middle — seal off her defender when a shot goes up — as well as refine her perimeter game.
Gullett wants to be more aggressive. “I feel like I’ve gotten better at driving in and finishing at the basket,” she said.
There’s a third Hammonds — freshman Cora Beth.
“It can be fun,” Emily said. “Sometimes we can get into it. We can be kind of dramatic with each other, I guess.”
Hammond wants to separate coach from father. “I try not to drag (basketball) home with (Emily) and Cora Beth too much and burn ’em out on it.”
Hammonds the father doesn’t set a goal for wins; he simply wants to see improvement each week — and enjoy the process.
“I still spend way too much time, according to my wife, studying basketball and watching videos,” Hammonds said. “ … I think we can show improvement and have fun as we go. Wins and losses will take care of themselves.”