But since the program’s rebirth before the 2008-09 season, the Running Eagles have again made waves on the national stage, appearing in four straight NAIA tournaments and winning 20 or more games three of those four years.
Though last year’s team struggled with many challenges, it found success towards the end of the season with victories in eight of its final 10 games, including a 3-0 march through the Association of Independent Institutions Conference tournament. Life finished the 2011-12 season with a 19-15 record following a first-round loss in the NAIA tournament.
“I think we had a great finish,” Life coach and athletic director John Barrett said. “I’m thrilled to death with the way we finished the regular season. We dealt with a lot of injuries and adversity but continued to improve and become a better defensive team. Our shooting didn’t ever improve, but we limited our turnovers and didn’t throw the ball away as much.
“We were the No. 4 seed in our conference tournament, but beat two of the best teams in the nation in back-to-back games to win the conference and go to (the NAIA tournament in) Kansas City for the fourth year in a row.”
And though Life may have lost its first-round NAIA tournament game to top-ranked Shorter, Barrett said the Running Eagles gained a lot in the offseason.
“I thought we had an opportunity that we didn’t do anything with that first-round loss,” he said. “So the coaches and I worked hard to revamp our roster, and I feel pretty good about what we have going into this season.”
Others are taking notice, too, with Life among the teams earning votes in the preseason NAIA coaches’ poll, which was released Tuesday.
“Word is getting around,” Barrett said. “We only had 19 wins last year, but people must think we’ll be better this year. They’ve heard about the guys we’ve brought in.”
The Running Eagles’ roster — which includes former local high school players Chris Beasley (Pebblebrook), Barrington Ferguson (Marietta), DeAndre Cannon (Marietta) and Phil Taylor (Wheeler) — has talent and depth at every position, allowing Barrett to freely run his offensive and defensive styles in whatever way he chooses.
“This is the deepest roster we’ve had since we started basketball back,” he said. “It’s a team much like the one’s we had in the ’90s.
“Going into our fifth year back, I think this will be the first year we’ll get past the first round of the NAIA tournament. I think we’re nine or 10 deep with this roster. Now, we have the depth to press and trap like we like to do, and the talent to be more aggressive. We have more balance, which is what we lacked last year. We also have great shooters.”
Since its return, Life has had player capable of carrying the team, much like P.J. Myers, who averaged 24.4 points per game a year ago.
This time, the Running Eagles have interchangeable parts at several positions, which Beasley believe will be very beneficial.
“Coach brought in some recruits to fill spots we didn’t really have last year,” the senior said. “It will take time for us to jell, but as the season goes on, we’ll get better. Coach relies on everybody, and we all have a part.”
Taylor is one of those recruits that have found themselves at Life.
The starting point guard on Wheeler’s 2009 Class AAAAA state championship team, he spent two seasons at Florida International, an NCAA Division I program in Miami. But after the firing of NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas as the Golden Panthers’ coach, Taylor, who averaged 13.5 points and 3.0 assists as a sophomore, chose to come back to Cobb County.
Taylor will sit out this season to get acclimated to his new school.
“Life was the best opportunity for me to be close to my family,” he said. “I think this is an athletic team, and the sky is the limit for us. I plan on bringing a different aspect to the team. I have two years of (NCAA) Division I experience, and I hope I can bring what I’ve learned (at Florida International) and grow here as a person and contribute on and off the court.”
Off the court, there are other changes at Life.
The university’s athletic program shed its independent status and joined the TranSouth Athletic Conference this season. Along with the addition of women’s cross country and wrestling as varsity sports — and the expected addition of more teams in the future — Barrett believes the move to the TranSouth would benefit the entire department.
“I felt like our other sports needed a straighter line to get to their national tournaments,” he said. “We’re thrilled to be a part of the TranSouth. It will provide excellent rivalries for our basketball team, and true home-and-away conference games, which is what we didn’t have as independents. We’ll still go against somebody good every night, and we’ll build our record on our schedule, which will be as tough as it has been in the past.”
Life begins its schedule Monday with an exhibition at Georgia State, and then starts the regular season Nov. 3 at the University of the Cumberlands.