Jake Stewart knows it can go sideways in a hurry.
Like a fancy sports car, the Harrisburg head girls' basketball coach has his team cruising along at 7-0.
But one wrong slip in the gear shift and Stewart knows it could all come to a crashing halt.
That's why the second-year head coach isn't in a hurry.
Yes, he has the Bulldogs off to one of the school's second best start in history and yes, this year's club is a little more sleeker and dynamic than in years past, but the bottom line for Stewart is to not get ahead of the curve.
That's saying something for Stewart, who is usually pedal to the metal on the basketball court.
When Stewart took over the program a little less than a year and a half ago, it's suffice to say it was in shambles.
And still, in his first year on the sidelines, the former HHS basketball player himself led Harrisburg to eight wins. In the same vein, the Bulldogs lost seven games by five points or less.
So Stewart popped the hood, took a look inside and realized he didn't have to overhaul the engine. He took what he had, made a few tweaks and minor adjustments.
Commitment to Excellence
The biggest, of course, were making the Bulldogs believed they were a basketball team.
"I don't think any of these girls had ever seen a scouting report or gone over another team in practice," Stewart recalled. "So we went to work, first reminding them of how important this is and how hard they'll have to work. To their credit, they put in their time in the summer and in the weight room."
Stewart, who spent a limited time as the middle school coach, admits that it took some time for pieces to fall into place.
"Last year, they had a new coach, a new style, new assistants — new everything. They had to absorb more information than just grabbing a basketball and going out and playing."
Stewart doesn't like to take credit — for much — instead he doles out kudos and compliments to his assistant coaches like Stephanie Ferrell, who Stewart says does "everything" and fellow assistant coach Jacob Morse, who when Stewart can't go and scout, picks up the pen and pad and heads out the door.
The players however see things different.
Lindsey Murray, when asked what is the biggest difference Stewart has made as a basketball coach, had an emphatic response.
"He's all the difference. He's the reason we are winning," Murray said.
Senior forward Shelby Boer said having Stewart come on board her junior year quickly made her realize what she had been missing out during those "lean years" as a freshman and sophomore.
Page 2 of 3 - "We're better individually, but we are even better working as a team," Boer said. "We've grown together, as a team, instead of worrying about just ourselves as individuals.
"He's definitely made us work harder and appreciate what you work for."
Off and Running
Harrisburg opened up this season with a resounding win over Pope County and from there rattled off four straight wins at their own Invitational, including pulling out a one-point victory over Eldorado in the "championship" game.
That victory marked Harrisburg's first title in the Invitational's 27 years and for good measure, the Bulldogs closed up shop with wins at Murphysboro and at home against Du Quoin.
Harrisburg was scheduled to play at Pope County Wednesday, but that game has been canceled. So, Stewart will take the week off in preparation for what could be a very interesting week next week.
The Bulldogs will play four games over six days against competition that is a combined 15-8.
Harrisburg will play at Carterville (3-4) Monday, Dec. 15, at Herrin (3-3) Tuesday, Dec. 16, followed by Massac County (4-1), Thursday Dec. 13 and Hamilton County (5-0) Saturday, Dec. 15.
"We could go from 7-0 to 7-4 just like that," Stewart proclaims.
The difference for Stewart however is what his team believes now as opposed to a year or even two years ago.
"The confidence is high. They need that win over Eldorado to get a trophy. They needed the confidence-building win over Muphsyboro on the road to be 1-0 in the conference. They needed that win over Du Quoin to go 7-0.
"Even the close losses last year helped way more than I think the girls think. We're now winning those games this year as opposed to last year when we didn't have the confidence and would falter down the stretch."
As a player in head boys' basketball coach Randy Smithpeters' system some 10 years ago, Stewart recalls losing a total of 10 games between his junior and senior year, winning two regionals and a sectional.
So, he makes no bones about implementing what he learned them and applying it now.
"We do some of the same things with our defense, as far as a pressure-man switch, that coach Smithpeters and the boys use now," Stewart added. "We run the same presses and a couple of offensive plays that the boys run. That's just because we have the players. They are a good group and this year, they know can get it done."
Stewart can get it done too, just like he does on the basketball court, with the pedal to the metal.
Michael Dann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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