Southeast Whitfield girls basketball coach Mike Durham is a fundamental guy. He coaches fundamentals, and when talking about his team, the word comes up quite often.
But the cliché about clichés is they become clichés because they are true.
The bottom line is fundamentals lead to success.
“The biggest thing this past summer was we tried to make them understand all of the fundamental things,” said Durham, who is in his first year as coach and took over a Lady Raiders program that won just one game last season.
“We basically went back to square one with protecting the basketball and good ball handling and helping out on defense and all of the fundamental things you have to do before you even think about scoring.”
Fundamentally, this season has already been a success, with the hope of more accomplishments to come for Southeast.
The Lady Raiders enter tonight’s Sub-region 7B-4A game at LaFayette with a 13-6 record, including a 5-1 mark in league play. Just the sheer number of wins this season would be enough for excitement for the Lady Raiders, but Southeast is also tied atop the sub-region standings with Dalton. The Lady Catamounts’ 62-53 win a week ago at Dalton gives them a tiebreaker over the Lady Raiders at this point, but the two teams have another matchup coming Feb. 5 at Southeast, the regular-season finale for both teams.
Should the Lady Raiders win out, they would claim the sub-region regular-season title and the No. 1 seed for the Region 7-4A tournament — a long way away from last year’s dismal 1-25 record. It all began with a fundamental attitude change that Durham brought with him.
“I told them from day one: I hate to lose,” said Durham, who has been surrounded by athletic success all his life. “They needed to have that same attitude. You have to know that you can win, not hope that you can win.”
A decathlete at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s, he was on the same Bulldogs track team with Herschel Walker and his name is still listed in the school’s top 10 decathlon scores. His son Kris was a standout at Calhoun High before starring as a receiver for the Bulldogs and playing for the Detroit Lions this past season, joining former teammate Matthew Stafford. His son-in-law is Cleveland Indians pitcher Blake Wood.
That winning environment has certainly followed Durham — who previously coached cross country and track and field at Northwest Whitfield before spending the past few years at Cass — to Southeast, although it didn’t happen right away. The Lady Raiders lost their first four games of the season, but Durham said seniors Megan Collins, Tavi Parris, Angelica Herrera and Samantha Gravitt took the lead as the team turned the corner after the 0-4 start.
Collins and Parris are the team’s leading scorers, while juniors Serena Ramsey and Wendy Perez have been solid in the middle with defense and rebounding. Sophomore Cricket Wyatt has emerged as a scoring threat off the bench, which has proven to be deep this season. Since that rough start, the Lady Raiders are 13-2.
“I was a little skeptical at first, but he is a great coach,” Parris said. “He teaches us different and makes us work hard. It wasn’t a big change, and everything came together very quickly.”
Collins agreed, saying the transition was smooth and the Lady Raiders bought in from the beginning.
“We were coming off of a pretty bad season, but we decided we would all have an open mind and listen to him and do what he wanted to do,” Collins said. “We worked hard all summer and we are just going to keep working hard and see how it goes.”
Hard work is one of the basics stressed by Durham, who knows that effort can overcome other shortcomings.
“The one thing we can control is the effort we put forth every night,” he said. “That has made the transition so much easier for all of us. They lose balls and make mistakes like everyone else, but we have been making up for our mistakes. That comes back to effort, and we might have a bad night shooting or turn the ball over too many times, but the effort is always there.”
Basics. Fundamentals. Effort. The girls have certainly bought in.
“He is just a really good coach and came in and wanted to focus on our weaknesses and work on those and get those better,” Collins said. “He wanted everyone to be able to handle the ball and really work on the basics. It is working.”
Said Parris, “We believe more in ourselves. We trust each other on the team. If I get beat, I know someone is going to pick that person up. It is more of a trust thing this year, and we don’t worry if we are behind, because we have the confidence in each other that we can come back from anything.”
Belief might be the biggest difference this season. Earlier this month, the Lady Raiders hosted Northwest and were trailing by six points late in the fourth quarter. But Collins hit a 3-pointer in the waning seconds, and the Lady Raiders had their first win over the Lady Bruins since 1999.
“We played real well against Northwest and even though we got down, we didn’t panic,” Durham said. “We came back and won the game, and that gave us encouragement that we could play and compete with anyone.”
Parris and the rest of the seniors are believers.
“It is a great experience,” Parris said. “At the beginning of the season, I didn’t even know if I wanted to play. I got to know coach Durham before basketball even started and he is an awesome man, and I would have regretted not playing for him.”
But as is the cliché, the coach turns all the praise back to the players.
“It is exciting. It really is,” Durham said. “It is a testament to the girls’ hard work, and they believe in what we are asking them to do. From the beginning, they haven’t questioned what we have told them. They have just worked hard.”
Hard work pays off. Another cliché, but true nonetheless.