The elimination of three local teams in their respective state tournament brackets this week officially brought the 2022-23 high school basketball season to an end in Hall County.
Like most others, it was as a season filled with ups and downs for a number of programs that included plenty of history made, particularly on the girls side.
Chestatee had the most historic achievements throughout the county, with the No. 8 Lady War Eagles (23-8) winning the program’s first region (8-4A) championship since 2014 on their way to earning the first appearance in the state quarterfinals by advancing to the Elite Eight of the GHSA’s Class 4A bracket.
“These girls, this group of girls is special,” Chestatee girls coach Sutton Shirley said shortly after the Lady War Eagles’ season came to an end Tuesday. “I wouldn’t want to coach any other group. What they’ve done, this year, winning the region championship, making school history and making the Elite 8 and playing in the Elite Eight game at home and seeing the support of the community and seeing the support the support of people who graduated 15 years ago, with no real connection to the school other than just loving Chestatee and being proud of these kids is special to see.
“These girls have overcome a lot of obstacles and bumps in the road. It’s not like we’re 23-0 or 23-1. To see 14- to 18-year-old kids fight through adversity, never quit and deal with me the whole season is admirable. I couldn’t be more proud of the effort (Tuesday) night. “
Hall County’s two other girls teams with deep state tournament runs also experienced their share of history this winter.
Lakeview Academy’s postseason surge lasted all the way into the GIAA semifinals before coming to an end Wednesday, marking their Lady Lions’ (17-13) first Final Four appearance in a state tournament since 2017 and just the third in school history.
Gainesville, meanwhile, rebounded from a disappointing 2021-22 campaign to advance to the 6A state quarterfinals, the program’s first Elite Eight appearance since 2015, in Vanessa White’s first season as head coach.
The Lady Red Elephants (23-6) were also part of joint history with the Gainesville boys when both teams won the 2022 Lanierland Basketball Tournament, marking just the third time the program’s two teams have done so in the same year and just the 10th time in the 65-year history of the tournament that girls and boys teams from the same school have won the title in the same year.
In addition, several girls teams had to deal with the loss of key players during a rash of injuries throughout the season that included such top names such as Gainesville’s Caloni Young and North Hall’s Kristina Peach having their season’s cut short.
However, both the Lady Red Elephants and Lady Trojans were able to overcome those devastating losses to qualify for the state tournament.
Meanwhile, East Hall’s girls fought through the loss of just about its entire starting line-up just prior to Lanierland to play its best basketball at the right time to make the state tournament in one of Hall’s most impressive in-season turnarounds.
But as many big stories as there were throughout Hall County this season, even bigger stories are likely still ahead in the very near future, with many top local player set to return again in 2023-24.
The girls teams from Chestatee and Lakeview Academy should return all five starters from this year’s state tournament teams, including such top players as Riley Black and Caroline Bull for the Lady War Eagles and Taliah Gaither and Dynesty Putman for the Lady Lions.
“We’ve got everybody coming back,” Lakeview girls coach Karen Towles said. “Our leaders on the court (this season were) a junior and two sophomores. So we’ve got a lot to look forward to. The future is bright and these girls set the tone this year.
“I think the health of the program is very good right now. We’ve got a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy going for us right now. The kids that are coming back … have a lot of fire and fight in them and want to be in (postseason) situations.”
Likewise, Cherokee Bluff’s girls are set to return four of their five starters from this year, including one of the county’s most exciting young players in freshman Claire Carlson, as well as their top two reserves.
In addition, several boys teams are set to return the bulk of their line-up, including some of the top individual underclassmen like Chestatee’s Colton Wilbanks, Cherokee Bluff’s Boston Kersh, North Hall’s Cole Hulsey, East Hall’s Jamarcus Harrison and Lakeview’s Justyce Sadler.
– Sports Editor Bill Murphy contributed to this report