The programs have set a standard that both boys coach Patrick Damron and girls coach Barry Ruff expect to meet each year.
“The kids know what is expected of them,” Damron said. “I think it’s important for the kids to know what is expected of them going into the program.”
TRADITION IN THE MAKING
With tradition-rich boys programs like J.I. Burton, Twin Springs and Castlewood in the Cumberland District along with Eastside, Damron knew establishing a high-quality program was going to be important when he stepped in as the Spartans’ coach.
Damron spent nine years as St. Paul’s coach before consolidation with Coeburn formed Eastside. He took over as the Spartans’ coach a year after consolidation.
Eastside has since won six of the past seven Cumberland tournament championships, including the last five in a row. It’s also claimed the regular-season championship seven years in a row, including a co-championship with J.I. Burton in 2019.
Under Damron, the Spartans have won two Region 1D championships in the past three years and made four appearances in the VHSL Group 1 tournament, finishing as runner-up twice.
The key to their success?
“It’s a mix of things,” Damron said. “It’s a mix of having good, talented, committed kids and having kids who believe that we have a chance to win no matter who we’re playing.”
Also crucial is believing in the coach and the system he’s running.
“We’ve had good kids that have bought into the program,” Damron said.
It also helps that players are familiar with Damron’s system before they get to the varsity level.
“I have always practiced the varsity and JV teams together,” he noted. “Some coaches do that, but I don’t think it’s the norm.
“I’ve always had one combined practice so those kids know what is expected before they get to me.”
Another goal, Damron said, was building a winning mindset and making it a tradition.
“That’s what we wanted to try to do from the start,” he said. “We wanted to be a team that other teams did not want to play.”
The success speaks for itself.
In eight years, the Spartans have produced five players — Derrick Cusano (Montreat), Luke Lawson (UNC Asheville), Colyn Sturgill (Alice Lloyd), Nick Livingston (Southwest Community College) and Chris Swann (Emory & Henry) — who continued playing at the collegiate level.
Ethan Powers, a 2020 graduate and the school’s all-time leading scorer, was an NCAA Division II prospect but decided not to play after high school.
“I’ve been blessed to have some good kids and good talent,” Damron said.
The Lady Spartans also have built a résumé to stand on under Ruff.
Ruff coached at Castlewood, his alma mater, for 11 years, a span in which his teams won four Cumberland District championships and a Region D title and made a state final four appearance.
Five seasons ago, Ruff accepted the coaching position at Eastside and in his first season with the Lady Spartans, they finished as the Cumberland District runner-up.
Since then, Eastside has won four straight regular-season district championships — making four straight trips to the regional tournament — and three of the past five Cumberland tournament titles. The Lady Spartans have won a regional championship and reached the state final four in 2018.
Their dominant district run includes 36 consecutive regular-season victories.
Like Damron, Ruff said he has been blessed by skilled, dedicated players who believe not only in the system but also in themselves.
Ruff’s system focuses on defense.
“These girls take pride in their defensive play and that playing defense and making stops helps us win games,” the coach said.
Dedication to the program has also been an asset.
“Most of these girls are three-sport athletes and they play volleyball and softball and they’re competitors in all of them, so they have to find time to play basketball and they do. They’re good at doing that and doing what it takes to win,” Ruff said. “They believe in the themselves and in the program.
“We may sometimes play a team that is more talented,” he added, “but their belief in their ability to play defense is what makes the difference for us.”