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Boys basketball: Return of Joe Dix as East Hall coach has enthusiasm high at Valhalla
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East Hall boys basketball coach Joe Dix surveys his bench during a scrimmage game Nov. 8, 2022 in Gainesville. - photo by David Friedlander

Home has been a major focus for Joe Dix, for a long time, and East Hall High School has been home for a major portion of his basketball coaching career.

So it’s understandable that he is reveling in his latest homecoming as he returns to the bench as the Vikings head coach this fall for the first time since heading across the Hall-Gwinnett county line to coach at Collins Hill in 2018.

It’s also not surprising that Dix’s actual home played a major role in him returning to East Hall, where he guided the Vikings to 14 state tournament berths, including a Class 2A state title in his inaugural season in 2005 and a 3A runner-up finish two seasons later.

“My son wanted to go to East Hall Middle (School) with his classmates from elementary school,” Dix said. “And my wife was offered a job at the elementary school, as well. So those two factors kind of fell into place even before the East Hall job was open. We really weren’t even thinking about that then, but then, a home that we really liked came free and we were able to purchase that in the East Hall district, as well.

“So (then) East Hall reached out to me and asked me about the possibility of coming back. We kind of talked about it as a family and we felt like the opportunity to be within about a five-mile radius of each other would be good. I was probably a little bit more time away from them more than I (wanted) to be just because of the travel and everything to Collins Hill. I spent more of my time and I love the people there and always will. Those four years were very special to me, but just the opportunity to kind of put everybody in our family back in the same area was … more important.”

The timing wasn’t the only thing serendipitous about Dix’s return to East Hall after leading Collins Hill to 56 wins and a pair of state tournament appearances over the past four seasons.

By sheer coincidence, the man he replaced as the Eagles’ head coach, Ty Baumgardner, who spent the past four seasons at Topeka High School in Kansas, jumped at the chance to return to the Lawrenceville school after Dix left to come back to East Hall.

“Ty and I kind of laughed about that,” Dix said with a laugh. “We just kind of flip-flopped for a little bit.”

As familiar as the surroundings at East Hall are for Dix, the Vikings program he comes back to after his four seasons away is quite a bit different.

Most notably, there are a lot of new faces in the locker room, on the floor and the bench that he has to learn and get to know.

In fact, senior guard Levi Holtzclaw is really the only Vikings player has much familiarity with, and even that is a somewhat indirect.

“It’s been four years, so there’s no kids, obviously, that I coached (on the high school level) the last time I was here,” Dix said. “Some of these kids in the program now, I had them at youth camp and that kind of thing when they were younger. Of course, Levi Holtzclaw, who is one of our better players, I coached all of his brothers in our program. So there is certainly some symmetry as far as that goes.”

For what it’s worth, Holtzclaw remembers his experience playing in Dix’s youth camp very well.

And as far a 6-foot senior guard is concerned, from what he’s seen from Dix during practices and games, it’s almost as if he never really left.

“Everything is exactly the same,” said Holtzclaw, who averaged 10 points and 2.5 assists per game as a junior last year. “Everything – his personality, the camps are the same. I learned aggressiveness, just how to play aggressive (from Dix).”

What there isn’t much symmetry in, at least to Dix, is the brand of basketball he has coached throughout his career and what the returning Vikings players have been used to throughout their high school careers.

But while he knows there will be some adjustments necessary for the team to his up-tempo, end-to-end approach, Dix likes what he’s seen with how the team is taking to what he’s teaching.

“(Former East Hall coach) Tommy (Yancey) did a great job with these guys, but the style of play is totally different from what we’re trying to do now,” Dix said. “So that’s been an adjustment for (the players). There was nobody here who had a base for that, so we’re teaching it from the ground up.”

The other big adjustment both Dix and his players will have to make will be with the make-up of the new Region 8-4A.

It’s not necessarily which teams are in the region lineup, but the sheer number of them, with 11 teams being subdivided into two subregions.

“When you talk about an 11-team region and having to play crossover games (in the other subregion) to get in, that creates a situation where getting into the state tournament really is a monumental achievement,” Dix said. “I’ve been very honest with the guys about that. There are going to be some good teams in our region that aren’t going to make the state tournament. There are just so many teams. There’s no way around that.

“That being said, every night’s going to be a battle. Obviously, we play everybody — we cross over and play everybody on the other side once and everybody on our side twice. That’s a lot of familiarity between the teams, so it’s really going to come down to who’s playing well at the end of the year.”

It may take some time for Dix and the Vikings to see how both will respond during his homecoming.

While a lot remains unknown, one thing he does know is that he is early looking forward to the ride, and that when the road of the ride that is the 2022-23 season ends, it will be at home.

“I’m looking to see how much (the players are) able to embrace what we’re doing,” Dix said. “They’ve been really excited about it early. Of course, once you start playing and start handing out playing time, you never know how those things can go. But I’ve been very excited with the way they’ve really embraced a totally different style of play.”

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