Cullman’s Eastman, Thompson sign with Montevallo, UAH

Cullman’s AK Eastman (left) and Will Thompson (right) signed their national letters of intent to the University of Montevallo and the University of Alabama at Huntsville respectively during Wednesday’s signing ceremony at Cullman High School. (Nick Griffin for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Two highly accomplished Bearcat athletes took another big step toward their collegiate careers on Wednesday. Teammates, friends, family and coaches gathered in Cullman High School’s Tillman Hall to see basketball and cross-country standouts AK Eastman and Will Thompson sign their national letters of intent to continue their athletic careers at the University of Montevallo and the University of Alabama at Huntsville respectively.

Both Eastman and Thompson have left massive legacies behind in their Bearcat careers. Eastman has racked up 1,316 points in her 114 games played so far in her career, made 430 field goals including 157 three-pointers, knocked down 299 free throws including a state record 43 consecutive shots from the line last season, collected 284 rebounds, 302 assists and 282 steals in her career but all those numbers will continue to rise throughout her senior season.

Thompson wrapped up his cross-country days with the Bearcats at last week’s state championships in Moulton and went home with a third-place individual finish. Will has collected several honors in his high school career, including two finishes on the All-State Cross Country team, two 6A Section 5 championships, two track and field 6A Section 5 MVPs, placed second overall at this year’s AHSAA All-Star Cross Country Meet, finished as the second fastest senior in the state of Alabama, finished All-State track and field in the 1600 and 3200-meter runs and has finished on three 6A Cross Country State Runner-Up teams. Thompson also holds multiple new records including the 6A Section 5 5K record, the Cullman High School 5K record, four cross country course records, 6A Section 5 track and field 3200-meter record and has a personal best of 9:48 in the 3200-meter and 4:34 in the 1600-meter.

Will’s cross-country and track coach Trent Dean has seen him develop as an athlete over the last few years and believes that Will’s path to becoming a college-level runner is something future and current Bearcat runners should learn from.

“Will is actually a great lesson for everybody because if you looked at him in seventh, eighth or ninth grade, nothing would tell you that he’s going to be the greatest of all time at Cullman High School. 10th grade was a very disappointing year for him actually. He didn’t get much better but from that point he kind of made a decision that, ‘I’m serious about this. I know my goal is to run in college.’. So, he made some changes and his work ethic really increased. Of course, you have to believe in yourself and he did. He knew he could do it and he always had some degree of confidence but after that 10th grade year there was a difference in cross country and then in track season, there were some days that we were in the weight room at 6:00 and I’m like, ‘Alright Will, I’ve got to go home man.’,” Dean joked. “His work ethic just really increased and he started to see the fruits of it. His teammates have seen that and he’s set such a great example because sometimes people have a lot of success and people say they’re just really talented. Of course, that’s an element at play here but it was his work ethic and determination that has really brought him to this level so we’re just so proud of him.”

Thompson is looking forward to his collegiate career and the chance to run with some of the best athletes in his sport but admits that he will miss his coaches and teammates here at Cullman. Will also credits his high school coaches and teammates for pushing him to achieve his goals of running at the next level.

“Probably the thing I’m most excited about competing in college is the array of elite athletes that I get to compete against and having a new team and a great coach that I’m looking forward to,” Thompson said. “I will miss my teammates and my coach here because we’ve kind of grown as a family over the years and I think that’s what I’ll miss the most for sure. My coaches and teammates were pushing me to be my best every day and my coaches really set me up for the success that it takes to compete at the college level.”

Like Thompson, Eastman is excited to see what future has in store but knows that she’ll miss the teammates and coaches that she’s grown close to over the years. She also credits those teammates and coaches for helping her reach this point and take advantage of this opportunity.

“I guess what I’ll miss most is competing against the kids that I’ve played with since I was in sixth grade. You just have that chemistry that’s hard to break but it’ll be fun to get to know new people, form new bonds and just look forward to the future,” Eastman said. “I think Coach (Josh) Hembree for sure pushed me. If I’m not playing my best, he still lets me know and just him being hard on me and having great players around me has definitely helped.”

Cullman Girls Head Basketball Coach Josh Hembree has seen many times that Eastman has a big impact on the game when she’s on the court but has seen her do the same thing with those around her off the court. On top of her character, Hembree credits her passion for the game and her work ethic for helping her reach this level as a player.

“AK is a special kid. She’s a special kid on the court and I think everyone sees that when she plays. She understands the game really well but more so than that, she’s a special kid off the court. She’s an incredible student, a great friend, a great teammate and she just lives her life the right way,” Hembree said. “I think she is kind to people and I’m just really excited for this opportunity for her to go play at a really good program and be able to contribute. She’s worked really hard and not only done everything I’ve ever asked her to do, she’s always looking for more what she can do to get better. I think that’s a testament to someone who loves the game, who’s passionate about it and who wants to be the best they can be.”

Hembree believes that Eastman’s mark on the basketball program can’t be overstated and wants to see others pick up where she leaves off.

“I think all these girls coming up and even some of the girls we have on varsity right now are seeing that this is the bar. This is what we’re going to measure ourselves by and this is the standard and she continues raising that every day with her level of play and her work ethic,” Hembree said. “You see her in the weight room and she’s the strongest kid we’ve got and its little things like that that can make a huge difference.”

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