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High school basketball: East Hall girls, boys finally starting to find their strides after rough starts
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East Hall's Maleah Harrison (2) drives to the basket against Flowery Branch on Nov. 29, 2022 in Flowery Branch. Photo by Amanda Loggins For The Times

Records of 5-16 and 7-14 don’t sound so good for any high school basketball team this far in to the current season.

But for East Hall’s boys and girls teams, those marks are actually a sign of major progress.

Both Vikings squads struggled mightily out of the gate for the 2022-23 campaign, yet since the holidays ended and the calendar turned, both have demonstrated they are clearly headed in the right direction.

And while there are some differences in specifics, in general terms, the resurgence of both teams have taken similar paths as they continue play in Region 8-4A with an important doubleheader against Cherokee Bluff on Tuesday night at Valhalla.

“(Lady Vikings head coach) Justin (Wheeler) is on my staff, too,” East Hall boys head coach Joe Dix said. “So we talk a lot. Certainly, his biggest thing is getting his team healthy. … (And) we’re finally healthy now, too.”

Indeed, both East Hall teams have benefitted by being closer to full strength than they’ve been the entire season.

That dynamic has been particularly stark for the girls (7-14 overall, 4-7 in region), who at one point in December had all five starters out with injuries.

The low point was an 87-30 loss at North Hall on Dec. 6, when the Lady Vikings already had three regular starters out with injuries, and then lost starting sophomore post Terriah Watkins to a season-ending knee injury.

That left the Lady Vikings with only seven healthy bodies dressed for a few games.

But since the starters returned, and sophomore guard Amari Burce was finally able to join, they are finally starting to find their stride, having won four of their last six games, including back-to-back wins over East Forsyth and Flowery Branch last weekend, and five of their past eight since starting the season 2-11.

“It’s kind of like our first time playing with everybody,” Wheeler said. “I think it’s a combination of being healthy again and, once we got everybody back … building chemistry.

“We had some things we needed to work on, and we had to do some things defensively and just try to find out what works for us.”

A big key in helping build that chemistry is point guard Maleah Harrison, the Lady Vikings’ leading scorer, who was paramount in helping keep the team together and tread water when it was short-handed.

And with Burce, fellow sophomore guard Kaylana Curry and senior wing Callie Dale all healthy again, plus the development of key newcomers like freshman Haley Barton, the Lady Vikings are playing with a confidence they didn’t have earlier in the season.

“We felt our confidence level build, not necessarily winning games, but performing better against quality opposition (like a 69-62 loss to No. 8 Chestatee on Jan. 8),” Wheeler said. “We didn’t win (that game),  but we knew we were playing better, and we just kept building off good performances. Eventually, it turned into a couple of Ws. We just need to keep building on those.”

Like the girls, the East Hall boys (5-16, 2-9) had some personnel issues due to injuries, most notably, senior wing Cletus “C.J.” Agborsangaya, the Most Valuable Player of the 2021 Lanierland tournament, who didn’t make his 2022-23 debut until this season’s Lanierland.

There were also similar issues in building team chemistry that the girls had.

“I’ve started 15 different kids in a game (this season),” Dix said. “So we went through a lot trying to figure out what was our best lineup to start games, and we feel like we’ve got that down (now).”

There were additional issues as well, plus the added issues of getting used to Dix, a long-time fixture in the Vikings program who returned after spending the last four years coaching at Collins Hill in Gwinnett County, and it made for a rough 1-14 start to the season.

“(Senior guard) Levi (Holtzclaw), I coached all three of his older brothers, and he’s known me since he was little,” Dix said. “But I did not know … any of the returning varsity players. … I kind of had to figure things out and who could do what.

“It’s been a crazy, crazy learning experience. I’ve learned more as a coach because I’ve had to change some things on the fly. … I just told them, ‘Just keep working, keep bringing this kind of energy (and) something good is going to happen.”

With Agborsangaya having worked himself back into basketball shape since Lanierland, Holtzclaw finding his comfort level as a leader and the development of younger players like freshmen Jamarcus Harrison and Chasen Jones, good things are starting to happen.

The Vikings have also won four of their last six games, including avenging early-season losses to North Hall and Flowery Branch, and they held fourth quarter leads in both of those two losses.

And Dix is hopeful that the Vikings best basketball is still ahead of them, starting with Tuesday’s important Region 8-4A, Subregion A game against Cherokee Bluff.

“Our region has just been all over the place – both subregions,” Dix said. “I really think it will come down to who’s playing best at the end (of the season). I’ve talked to our guys and told them I didn’t think we’d be at our best until the end, and it’s kind of playing out that way.

“There will still be some growing pains for us, but we’re going to get in there and practice and get ourselves ready. The kids have been great, though. I’ve enjoyed coaching them, I’ve enjoyed being back with them, and they haven’t quit. … Obviously, I’d rather not be 5-16, but I’ve enjoyed coaching this team.”

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