It’s that time of year again.
The holiday season has brought with it the 59th edition of Hall County’s Lanierland basketball tournament, with first-round games tipping off at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 27, at Chestatee High.
The annual event will once again pit eight Hall County schools against each other in a tournament to establish which program’s team stands above the rest.
“The tournament’s always a special time,” North Hall boys coach Tyler Sanders said. “It’s always right after Christmas, so we get a little break and then get right back into it in a very tough region. The tournament itself is tough every year. You always look forward to that competition.”
This year’s event features many familiar faces in head coaching positions as well as a few newcomers on the boys side. Benjie Wood, who won the Lanierland in 2017 as Gainesville’s coach, returns at the helm of first-year school Cherokee Bluff, fresh off a win in a play-in game against Chestatee last week.
Meanwhile, No. 1 seed Gainesville as well as two-seed East Hall each sport new head coaches, with Chuck Graham (Red Elephants) and Seth Thompson (Vikings) taking over for last year’s championship competitors.
Graham said he’s been excited to coach at Lanierland since being promoted to the top position at Gainesville.
“I’m looking forward most of all to the atmosphere,” he said. “You have all the schools in the area really at one place. It becomes pretty exciting. All the games feel like state tournament games. To have your kids experience that right before region play is huge.”
Whether Gainesville and East Hall repeat as finalists, or lower seeded teams pull upsets on the way to the county championship, another chapter will be written in the history of Hall County basketball.
“I think it’s the premiere Christmas tournament in the state,” Lakeview Academy coach Todd Cottrell said. “There are so many great players and great teams that have played in it. The history is rich and the tradition is rich. Hall County has always had a good reputation of having very good high school basketball.”
Up first on the boys side, West Hall faces Lakeview Academy at 11 a.m.
The Lions come into the tournament hot, following a 20-point win over Flowery Branch in the Lakeview Invitational. Lakeview Academy has won seven of 11 games this year, and two of the last three.
The Spartans, meanwhile, have had a bumpier start to the year, after dropping their first four contests to begin the season. Wins over North Oconee and White County have gotten West Hall into the win column, but the team already sports a couple losses over Lanierland competitors (Johnson and Chestatee).
Still, Cottrell said West Hall is a much better team than its 2-8 record seems to indicate.
“They’re a really good team, and they do so many things well,” he said. “I know coach Pless does a great job. They’re very well coached. They’ve got several outstanding players that we’re going to have our hands full with. Definitely a tremendous challenge, and hopefully our guys compete.”
In the second game, North Hall squares off with Flowery Branch at 2 p.m.
After a promising 3-3 start to the year, a six-game losing streak halted North Hall’s momentum in the early stages of the season. But the Trojans bounced back with a win in their last game against Johnson.
First, North Hall will have to get through a Falcons squad that is still looking for its first win on the year.
Though Flowery Branch remains winless through 10 games this season, Sanders said he was still weary of the size advantage his team’s first-round opponent holds.
“They have a lot more size than we do,” he said. “I think we kind of have some contrasting styles. Whoever’s able to dictate the pace of play, I think will have a big advantage in the game.”
At 5 p.m., Johnson goes up against East Hall.
The Knights started the year off relatively strong against Hall County teams. Johnson came within three points of beating Chestatee and took down West Hall by nine in a pair of road games early on.
The Knights’ most recent game was a 33-point outing and loss to North Hall.
East Hall’s season has been marked by a number of important wins, including a perfect 4-0 start to region games. An 0-3 mark at the Carolina Forest Invitational brought East Hall back to nearly .500 on the year, but one of those losses came by a point and another by just two points.
In the nightcap, Cherokee Bluff takes on Gainesville at 8 p.m.
Now the Red Elephants’ coach, Graham is facing the man who held the same position through the 2018 season. Gainesville is off to a 4-6 record, and is playing its first opponent from Hall County all season.
First-year Cherokee Bluff, meanwhile, is off to an impressive 8-5 start. Wood’s new squad has won five of its last six games, including last Thursday’s Lanierland play-in bout against Chestatee.
Graham said he has great respect for Wood and the new Cherokee Bluff team, a team who’s top scorer — Griffin Neville — played for Gainesville a season ago. Still, he said the focus remains on his own team rather than their opponents as the group prepares for region play.
“Our focus is more so on Gainesville and what we have to do,” Graham said. “But I do believe that as a whole, what (Cherokee Bluff has) done to get off in these first few ball games is awesome. I know they’ll be well coached. I’ll know they’ll be prepared. But our 14 guys in our locker room have to concentrate on us.