Jason Grube loves the challenge of building a basketball program.
After growing up playing in basketball-crazed Indiana, Grube realized his passion for coaching in college at Indiana University, and became the youngest head coach in the Charlotte area at age 25 when he took the job at East Mecklenburg in 1999.
After coaching the East Meck basketball team for the last 13 seasons, winning the 2008 4A state championship, Grube never imagined he would hit rock-bottom with the Eagles.
That is exactly what started happening at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, when the Eagles were hit hard by graduation and redistricting, losing nearly 80 percent of the junior varsity and varsity program.
As a result, the young and inexperienced Eagles got off to their worst start in Grube's tenure at 1-12.
"I've been through some tough times at East Meck," Grube said. "But last year, when we were 1-12, that was really bad. I was thinking to myself, 'I don't know how much longer I can go through this.' And the worst part was a lot of it was out of our control."
Instead of quitting or making excuses, Grube and his team picked themselves up, winning their next four SW4A games and six of their final 10 conference games to finish fifth in the league and qualify for the playoffs. Then East Meck pulled off a 70-62 upset win over No. 1 seed A.C. Reynolds in the first round, before losing a hard-fought second round contest to Vance.
"The way we played in the second half of last season really said a lot about our players and our coaches," Grube said. "A big turning point for me was not always caring about winning, but caring about the kids I coach. Even in the hard times, we focused on our players. We looked for kids that want to work hard and develop and play with a chip on their shoulder."
Last season, players like then juniors Miles Leathers, Trent Richardson and sophomore Jerrin Morrison transformed from first-year starters into SW4A standouts.
That core took their momentum into this summer, where they not only worked hard to get better, but also won the N.C. State team camp.
"Going to team camp (at N.C. State) and playing so well really help us get closer," Richardson said. "Ever since then, we do just about everything with each other."
Defense also has been the hallmark of East Meck's success as Grube is constantly working to hold opponents under 50 points.
"Coach says if we hold other teams under 50 points, we will win," said senior Jaye Hunt The Eagles have held seven of their 20 opponents under 50 points. "If they get over 50 (points), then we have to run more next practice. No one on this team likes to run sprints."
Leathers, a 6-foot-3 senior point guard, leads the team in points (12.8 per game), assists (4.2 per game) and steals (3.0 per game) and has been supported by a starting lineup that includes Richardson (10.1 ppg), Morrison (10.9 ppg, 7.6 rebounds per game), Juwuan Childs (9.7) and Hunt (7.0 ppg).
While East Meck (12-8, 7-4 as of Feb. 3) is in fourth-place going into the final week of the season, they have been on a roll of late, winning eight of their 10 games, including a 48-46 road win at first-place South Meck and 64-59 win at defending SW4A champion Butler.
The Eagles' season hasn't been without adversity. They recently lost their second-leading scorer and top rebounder in Morrison to a MCL sprain, but hope to have him back for this week .
Grube hopes his team will finish strong and take some momentum into the SW4A tournament Feb. 13 by winning their regular season home finale against South Meck on senior night for Hunt, Leathers, Richardson, Chiles and reserve Glory Bienvenue.
"It's going to be very emotional for all us," Leathers said, of senior night. "Now, with all that we've been through, the ups and downs, the blood, sweat and tears, it's tough to think it's almost over."
While the Eagles hope to be a factor deep into the playoffs, they already know this season has been a big step.
"This whole season has been huge for our program," Grube said. "These kids, especially our seniors, have been through a lot and they never gave in or gave up."