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Region 7-AAAAAA: Habersham Central ready for big test

Raiders will compete in region with all Gwinnett County schools

POSTED: June 22, 2012 5:48 p.m.

In any change to the landscape of athletic competition, there are winners and losers.

That became evident during the highly publicized high school realignment by the Georgia High School Association, and perhaps no school felt the change more than Habersham Central.

The Mount Airy school, previously a member of Region 8-AAAA along with Flowery Branch, was elevated two classifications to the new Class AAAAAA, the state’s largest, and placed in Region 7, alongside perennial athletic powers like Collins Hill, North Gwinnett and Norcross, to name a few.

After an appeal to move to Region 8-AAAAAA, citing the disparity in school populations between Habersham and its new competition, was denied, coaches and athletes were forced to adjust to their new reality.

Now, isolated by an hour’s drive from its nearest competition, Habersham Central will have to establish new rivalries against a host of opponents it hasn’t played in recent memory, all the while trying to catch up to a level of play, which, helped by the vast numbers of participating athletes, has been among the state’s best.

“They’re frustrated,” Habersham Central athletic director Amy Hood said of her coaches. “And rightfully so. But at the same time, I believe our coaching staff is very solid, and, knowing these guys and girls like I do, there’s no doubt in my mind they’ll do what it takes to compete at this level.”

Hood noted that, despite the difference in opinion between Habersham Central coaches and the GHSA, the school is just going to have to get used to the new alignment.

“We’ve appealed, and it hasn’t come to fruition,” she said. “Sometimes, when you do all you can do to let others see your point of view and they don’t agree with you, you just have to let it go. I think we all understand that.”

Translation: The teams, ready or not, are preparing to meet the competition full speed ahead.

That competition has been well documented in recent history.

The Norcross boys basketball team won a state championship in 2011. The girls have won two of the past three.

Collins Hill has won three consecutive state titles in softball and two of three in wrestling. A host of football teams compete at the highest level year in and year out.

Raiders football coach Stuart Cunningham said that his team is going into it the same as any other year.

“Our mindset hasn’t been any different,” he said. “We know what we’re getting into. Our school has never jumped two classifications before. Obviously it’s going to be different, but how we prepare is going to be the same. We’re going to ask our kids to give their best every day. That’s not going to change.”

Boys basketball coach Don Ledbetter, who led his team to an 18-7 record in 2012 before losing all five starters to graduation, echoed Cunningham’s sentiments.

“It’s something that’s out of our control,” he said of the move. “Our focus is going to have to be on being as good as we can be. We lost eight seniors, and regardless of the league we play in, we’ve got some work to do.”

The disadvantage Habersham Central faces in the region is the number of participating athletes at the opposing schools, Cunningham said. New region foes Mill Creek, Norcross, Peachtree Ridge and Collins Hill are four of the five biggest high schools by population in the state.

And, he added, that often equates to an advantage in physical size as well.

“The biggest difference is the number of kids that play in the game and the size of the linemen across the board, I think,” Cunningham said. “Especially in this region. There are lots of college prospects at that position. I think this region is unique in that aspect.”

The same can be said for basketball, according to Ledbetter.

“I think the biggest change we’ll see is the size,” he said. “That’s where we’ll really notice the difference. We’ll see more 6-7, 6-8 kids on a nightly basis.”

If the task ahead seems daunting, however, coaches aren’t quick to reveal the misgivings.

Ledbetter stressed his excitement for what the future holds and that his team will go through the same processes of preparation as always.

“I think there’s a sense of genuine excitement going into the league,” he said. “We’re realistic, but we’re also excited. Our goal is to prepare like we always do and be the best Habersham that we can be. We can’t focus on anybody else.”

“We preach to our kids about going hard 100 percent of the time and playing when they’re tired,” Cunningham added. “Because they’re going to have to.”

And, as with anything, there are positives.

Hood noted the school’s new role as an underdog and the large base of support the school has in the community.

“Everybody loves an underdog,” she said. “I don’t think the pressure is on us at all, and I think our opponents know that. Our fans travel well, too. We have a large support base in the community. I think that will help us grow stronger as an athletic department and as a school system in general. I think some good things will come of this.”

That strong fan base will benefit the other schools in the region as far as revenue from ticket sales go. Hood said she was not yet sure how things will be impacted financially for Habersham.

“I get mixed emotions when talking to other athletic directors about that,” she said. “Some schools travel well and some don’t. Of course, it’s our operation, so we’re responsible for selling our tickets.”

Whatever the case, Ledbetter said he looks forward to the new competition and hopes the positives will win out in the end.

“We’re all competitors, and if we aren’t, then we shouldn’t be out there,” he said. “We’re going to learn and we’re going to get better. I really believe that our level of play will be raised by playing in this league.”

Editor’s note

This is the first in a series breaking down the new regions after the recent realignment.

June 30: Region 8-AAAAA

July 7: Region 8-AAAA

July 14: Region 7A-AAA, 8-AAA

July 21: Region 7B-AAA

July 28: Region 8-AA

Aug. 4: Region 8-A


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