When Willie Powers came to Georgia Southern in 2007, things were in good shape on the basketball court.
The Eagles started off the 2007-08 season at 20-8 with a win over NCAA Tournament-bound UAB before dropping the last four games of the season.
The next season looked even brighter.
But then Powers suffered the first of two season-ending injuries and his roller-coaster ride at GSU began.
Missing most of 2008-09 and all of 2010-11 with injury, Powers has watched the program struggle. His focus has remained on what could have, and maybe should have been in 2007-08. He doesn’t think of any of the 20 wins, only the games that got away.
"When I think of 2007, I think about all the missed opportunities we had. We had Florida on the ropes. We had Rhode Island on the ropes when they were a Top 25 team," said Powers. "We got upset by Charleston [in the Southern Conference Tournament], and I felt like we had a great team, and if that team had been in the SoCon these last three years, I felt like we definitely would have won it."
The Eagles have won only 22 games total in the three seasons since 2007-08. They went through an NCAA-violations scandal and had to start over from scratch with a new coaching staff.
Powers’ first leg injury came just 11 games into the 2008 season. He was averaging almost 15 points per game, and after the Eagles lost him for the season, they finished 4-16.
"It was tough watching it," Powers said, "tough sitting there every game and trying to be upbeat and show my team I was there for them."
Things went from bad to worse when, after the season, the NCAA sanctions hit and the members of the coaching staff either resigned or were dismissed.
In the 2009-10 season, under first-year coach Charlton Young, Powers and the Eagles struggled, finishing 9-22 and again losing in the first round of the SoCon Tournament.
Things went well in the offseason, as Young brought in what was widely thought to be the best mid-major recruiting class in the nation, but during offseason workouts, Powers suffered a season-ending injury for the second time. The Eagles won only five games last season.
Now, Powers joins senior guard Ben Drayton and the Eagles for one last shot at an elusive SoCon title.
"I really want it to be about them, sending them out the right way," said Young, who is entering his third season as head coach at GSU, about Powers and Drayton. "With all they have given to Georgia Southern University and Georgia Southern basketball, with all the things they’ve been through that they could not control, I just hope the young guys rally around them as the leaders."
As the Eagles prepare for the 2011-12 season, Powers has heard from all of the critics.
"I hear people say, ‘I don’t think he’ll be able to do it. I don’t think this team is ready.’ I try to block it all out, but you hear stuff like that," he said. "I think me and the whole team have a chip on our shoulder. I think our fans will see that."
Powers has another chip on his shoulder, too. After the 2007-08 season, he was named to the Freshman All-SoCon team along with last season’s outstanding senior class, including a second-round, NBA draft pick in Andrew Goudelock.
All the guys Powers came into the SoCon with have moved on.
"I felt robbed a little bit last year when I wasn’t able to compete with Cameron Wells, Andrew Goudelock, Amu Saaka, Noah Dahlman and everybody from Wofford who were seniors," Powers said. "Everyone I came in with as a freshman, I wanted to compete with as a senior."
Of course with the star power gone from the league, it leaves things wide open heading into the season.
"I don’t see any team that should come out and just give it to us like we took a few last year," Powers said. "I think we should be the best team we’ve had since my freshman year."
"We have a shot at it with Willie coming back and all those guys getting some experience," said the senior guard and team’s leading scorer last season. "We have a chip on our shoulder. We didn’t do good last year, and we know that. If we play with a chip on our shoulder, we can take the league next year."
Powers said it took a few weeks after recovering from the injuries to get back his groove on the court, but one thing that never went away was his competitive instinct.
"You never lose it," he said. "Going through what we were going through and hearing people talking about us and everything going on, I have it more than ever."
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.