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Interesting matchups fill opening round of Lanierland on Saturday

Tournament opens at Flowery Branch with eight games

POSTED: December 12, 2013 9:54 p.m.

The Lanierland basketball tournament tips off Saturday at Flowery Branch High with the same luster and excitement that has sustained the annual tradition into the 54th edition of this Hall County exclusive high school tournament.

All seven public high schools and Lakeview Academy will play on the first day, hoping to win and keep their chances alive for a championship in the eight-day event that wraps up Dec. 21 at Lakeview.

With so many games packed together, it’s a draw for former players, coaches and fans of local high school basketball to come out and cheer on their favorite team.

Every year, it’s a guarantee that games will come down to the wire. And upsets are just as common.

Who’s the favorite to win in 2013?

It’s anybody’s guess.

“It’s just a great community event with a family atmosphere,” said Johnson coach Jeff Steele, whose team opens against Flowery Branch on Saturday. “We hope everyone will come out and support it.”

The only Hall County program that doesn’t participate in Lanierland is Riverside Military due to its Christmas holiday furlough for students. The defending champion North Hall boys (1-3, 1-1 Region 7-AAA) and Chestatee girls (6-1) open as the No. 1 seeds.

Many of the coaches involved also have experience during their own prep careers, including Gainesville girls coach Brenda Gilmore (who starred at East Hall) and North Hall boys coach Tyler Sanders (who played at Johnson).

“I’ve told our players already that it’s a great atmosphere and always loud,” said the Trojans' coach, whose team will open against Chestatee in the nightcap on Saturday. “It’s always very exciting.”

This is the first Lanierland coaching experience for East Hall girls coach Justin Wheeler and Flowery Branch boys coach David Sokol.

“I’ve always heard about what a good tournament this was and still is,” said Sokol, who leads the Falcons into the opening round against No. 2 seed Johnson (4-2). “This is going to be a new experience for a lot of guys on our team, so it should be a lot of fun.”

The Falcons are led by forward Cody Dewing and shooting guard Taylor Bourdage. Johnson, meanwhile, has four guys that are averaging in double figures: James Hodges (19 ppg., 8 reb.), Ty Cockfield (15 ppg.), and Carter Cagle and Justin Jones at 10 per night.

The Knights have been runner-up in Lanierland three times under Steele, while the program won their only title in 1988.

Right off the bat, the tournament opens with some compelling matchups. None more so than Gainesville, led by first-year boys coach Benjie Wood, against Lakeview Academy (4-1, 2-0 Region 8-A), now under the leadership of former Red Elephants coach Todd Cottrell.

The Red Elephants (1-3, 1-3 Region 8-AAAAA), who have a region game at Cedar Shoals tonight, are led by sophomore Sam Carpenter and senior Ithello Cross at 14 points a game. Gainesville will also have the return of five football players — Jay Gaudlock, Rodney Lackey, Chris Byrd, J.D. Sosebee and Mesiah Dorsey — from its state semifinal run for Lanierland.

Meanwhile, Lakeview’s boys are paced by senior J.B. Britte (13 ppg.) and freshman forward Tre Gober (11 ppg., 6 reb.). Cottrell is well familiar with the emphasis placed on doing well in Lanierland, now leading his third Hall County program into the holiday event.

“I’m excited with the team we have at Lakeview,” said Cottrell, who plays four freshmen on a regular basis. “Playing Gainesville is going to be a great challenge for us.”

Due to region alignments, many Hall County programs don’t face one another on a regular basis. Lakeview Academy has already North Hall this season, but will not face another Hall County program the rest of the season after Lanierland.

Flowery Branch and Gainesville are in Region 8-AAAAA, while girls defending champion Chestatee (6-1) and Johnson (1-4) are both in Region 8-AAAA and open in the final girls matchup in that bracket at 7 p.m. Saturday.

The Lady Knights are led by point guard Sarah Williams at 8 ppg. and forward Kimmie Brady with six boards a game. Leading the Lady War Eagles are Bridgette Kelly (14 ppg., 5 reb.), Kayla Watson (13 ppg., 4 assists) and Deanna Bradberry (9 assists).

“Chestatee is very, very good and very well coached,” Johnson coach Kory Bays said. “We want to go out there and give our best effort and put our best foot forward.”

From Region 7-AAA, four-seed West Hall (3-3, 0-1) and No. 5 seed East Hall (4-2, 1-1) will play in the first of at least three games this season and battle great post players Saturday, according to Vikings boys coach Joe Dix.

East Hall is paced by 6-foot-5 junior Kyvon Davenport (19 ppg., 15 reb.) and will be met underneath by West Hall’s 6-6 senior Hunter Atkinson. Also for the Vikings, Triston Cooper and Elijah Lipscomb are scoring 10 points a game.

North Hall’s boys and Chestatee will play for the first time since 2012, and both are looking to pick up some momentum for the region stretch.

Leading the War Eagles are Jordan Pulliam (11 ppg., 8 reb., 7 assists), Hunter Creamer (13 ppg.) and Jordan Stubblefield at 11 ppg.

The Trojans have cultivated some young talent with juniors Brock Wingo (14 ppg.) and Matt Booth, sophomore Carson Heinen (16 ppg.) and freshman Evan Easton (10 ppg.) emerging as leaders after the program turned over its starting five and coach from the Class AAA state semifinal run last season.

Chestatee coach Gary Barnes’ main concern about the tournament that it is so spread out. The War Eagles have a region game against Lumpkin County coming up on Tuesday before playing its second game in the Lanierland later next week.

“I wish we could play the tournament in three consecutive days,” Barnes said. “The way it’s spread out, I feel, takes away some of the excitement.”

The North Hall girls (4-0, 2-0) have seen a resurgence this season of junior Sydney Cleveland (19 ppg.) and Kensi Gillespie (10 ppg.). Meanwhile, the Gainesville girls have senior Paisley Lee and Taylor Hawks leading the way at 9 points a game on average.

Second round play of Lanierland is next Thursday at Flowery Branch, then moves to Lakeview Academy for Friday and Saturday’s consolation and championship games.


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