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After tough Lanierland, area basketball teams set sights on region play
Next 5 weeks of season to determine playoff fates for local squads
12292017 LanierlandBoys 0004.jpg
Chestatee guard Donovan Hernandez (22), Chestatee forward Jarrett Gray (12) and Lakeview forward Arturo Varela grab the ball during the first round game of the 58th annual Lanierland Tournament between Lakeview and Chestatee in Gainesville, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017. - photo by David Barnes

For all its fanfare and history, last week’s Lanierland tournament was the usual three-day gauntlet that tested the physical and mental endurance of coaches and players alike.

But for Hall County high school basketball teams, the real grind — region play — is only just beginning.

Area squads enter the bulk of their region schedules this week, starting more than a month’s worth of jockeying for all-important region tournament seeds. With most teams having played only a few region games so far, the pressure will turn up as they prepare for a playoff push.

“We’ve still got three (region) teams that we haven’t played yet, so I think it comes down to the second time you play a team,” Flowery Branch boys coach David Sokol said. “That’s when the grind starts coming, when everybody knows what you’re trying to do and what you do best. It’s a matter of us focusing, as far as the details and what we have to do to win.”

Lanierland’s third-place Falcons, along with the school’s three-peat champion girls team, have their second-to-last non-region game against Mill Creek today before plunging into the Region 8-5A schedule at Clarke Central on Friday.

Other local teams faced a quicker turnaround. The back-to-back Lanierland champion Gainesville boys played non-region foe Warner Robins on Tuesday, while both the boys and girls teams for Lakeview Academy restarted region play against Hebron Christian Academy the same day.

Every Hall County team except Riverside Military resumes region play either today or Friday, forcing coaches to carefully manage their players’ rest following Lanierland.

“Lanierland is a grind,” said North Hall girls coach Kristi House, whose team opens a Region 7-3A doubleheader against Dawson County today. “It’s three days where you’re facing somebody good, and you have to prepare for each of them. We gave the kids a couple days off, then we refocused and got back to it today. 

“You have to change gears because our whole thing is trying to be on a journey to play our best in February.”

Sokol altered his usual approach and held just one practice leading into the first game after Lanierland. But with such a senior-laden squad, he’s confident his Flowery Branch team can adjust on the fly to the rigors of region play.

The Falcons currently sit in a three-way tie for third in the region, a brutal grouping of teams that features last year’s state championship game competitors in Buford and Cedar Shoals. Also in the region is rapidly improving Johnson, which will look to pick up its first region win against Cedar Shoal today.

“It’s so early. All we’re trying to do is play well because you don’t know how things play out,” Sokol said. “ … Every time we play, we need do our best, and hopefully we’ll be mix of things at the end of the year.”

In Region 7-4A, a pair Hall County schools on Friday will continue their quest to be among the four guaranteed participants out of the five-team region. West Hall’s boys and girls programs host Blessed Trinity, while the Chestatee teams travel to Marist.

The Lakeview Academy boys and girls are both seeking to repeat as Region 8-A champions, and they can take another step toward that goal when they visit Tallulah Falls on Friday. 

Riverside Military, which at 3-1 in region play appears to be a contender to dethrone the Lions, ends a 19-day layoff at Providence Christian Academy on Saturday.

The East Hall boys can stay among the Region 7-3A frontrunners when they host Dawson County on Friday, while the Lady Vikings aim to move up the region standings against the Lady Tigers. Gainesville’s programs, meanwhile, face Dacula at home for their first Region 8-6A contests on Friday.

Though the urgency and heightened competition of region play can be daunting for some, Hall County teams can hang their hats on already having enduring one pressure-packed experience.

“A lot of times Lanierland is way tougher than what you see in region play,” House said. “There’s good basketball in Hall County, and I’d stack these teams up against just about anybody. So the timing does help us get ready for the bulk of our region schedule.”

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