Five years ago, Sherry McKinnon took over an Ellison girls basketball program in shambles.

But with a strong helping of some motherly “tough love,” the former middle school coach turned shambles into success this past season as the Lady Eagles won the District 12-5A championship — the first in a decade for Ellison — en route to a school-record 30-win season and a trip to the Region II-5A semifinals.

“Coming into Ellison five years ago, my saying was to bring championship basketball back to Ellison High School,” McKinnon said Friday. “And I tried to work very, very hard to surround myself with good coaches to help me get that done.”

For all her tireless work restoring the prestige back to the Lady Eagles, McKinnon was honored this week by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches with its 2010-11 Dean Weese Outstanding (Girls) Coach Award for Class 5A.

“I feel very honored and very blessed,” she said. “It’s a great honor to be noted by your peers, and that you accomplished something.”

McKinnon beat out 5A finalists T.C. Willis of Midland, Pam Crawford of Clear Springs, and Dawn Engleman of Harlingen South. Salado second-year coach Jeanette McKinney was also a finalist at 3A, but Lorena’s Rodney Gee took the honor.

For McKinnon, though, it wasn’t an honor won easily.

“It was probably one of my hardest years of coaching because of the pain that some of my kids had to go through,” she said.

Among the hardships the Lady Eagles (30-8) dealt with included the death of the mother of sophomore Deja Pointer to lymphoma on Jan. 4. The loss of Pointer’s mother struck a major blow to the entire Ellison family.

But under McKinnon’s direction, the team grew closer rather than fall apart at such a pivotal point in their season — the heart of the District 12-5A schedule.

“It was just getting them to believe in each other, and us forming our family,” she said. “We were truly a family — those girls were truly sisters this season.”

Outside a 47-36 loss to Temple on Jan. 11 — playing the game only hours after attending the funeral for Pointer’s mother — the Lady Eagles won seven in a row to claim the outright district championship, Ellison’s first in more than a decade.

“You’re going to find a lot better coaches with the Xs and Os,” McKinnon said. “But to bring a group of girls to work together, I felt was a blessing that God has given me to get kids to understand their roles and do the best that they can with what’s given to them.”

But through the dark moments were much brighter ones, including junior Kanetria Curtis draining a three-pointer with 1:30 left against Temple to essentially seal the 12-5A title with a 51-49 victory on Feb. 4.

Or the incredible 30-6 run between the fourth quarter and overtime in the region quarterfinal against crosstown rival Harker Heights, as the Lady Eagles rallied from a 42-27 third-quarter deficit for the record 30th win in a packed Killeen High gym.

“I knew the potential was there,” McKinnon said. “So you just have to tap into that potential and have your kids to just play hard for you, and do what it takes with hard work to be successful.”

And it was through her position as coach/mother, fostering a true family atmosphere among her team, that resulted in some of Ellison’s biggest accomplishments ever.

“Give me a bunch of girls that will listen and are coachable, will work hard and understand we must do this as a team,” McKinnon said. “And it worked for us because team success brought success for them and now I’m rewarded because of them as well.”

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