While attending Dawson County High in the mid-1990s, Seth Thompson and some of his basketball teammates would often drive down to Gainesville to watch the East Hall squad in action.
The teams from neighboring counties didn’t share a region at the time, but Thompson still needed to get an up-close look at one of the most dominant programs in Northeast Georgia. The Vikings, stocked with future college players and known for their relentless pace, were building toward a string of three state championships from 2001-05.
“You heard about the pressure they played with,” Thompson said, “and we just had to come down and see these guys play for ourselves.”
After being as close to the action as possible at East Hall for the last two years, Thompson’s now running the show there.
School administrators promoted him from assistant coach to head coach this week, filling the void left by longtime coach Joe Dix. Thompson was on Dix’s staff for the past two seasons following work with both the boys and girls teams at Lambert High, which he helped open in 2009.
“It’s a surreal feeling, to say the least, to be in this position. I used to go down and watch them play,” the Dawsonville native said. “It’s an incredible opportunity, and East Hall is a really special place. It’s such an honor to get this position.”
Thompson said his hiring creates “as much of a seamless transition as possible” between him and Dix, who announced May 22 that he had been selected to take over the boys team at Collins Hill in Suwanee.
Thompson claimed he thought Dix would never leave his post as head man of the program, not after a 14-year tenure that began with a state title and ended with more than 300 wins.
But the longtime Vikings coach said he was in search of a new challenge, though the timing of Dix’s departure gave the school little time to find a replacement. So Thompson approached East Hall principal Jeff Cooper about potentially filling the vacancy.
“I really don’t know how, but I ended up getting it,” Thompson said with a chuckle.
It’s not like he didn’t have the necessary credentials.
Following a stint as athletic director and head coach of several teams at Riverwatch Middle in Suwanee, Thompson coached the Lambert girls basketball team over its first four seasons. He left the team after the 2012-13 campaign having amassed a 52-55 record and back-to-back playoff appearances, according to a story from the Forsyth County News.
While pursuing advanced degrees, Thompson was an assistant for the Lambert boys team under head coach Scott Bracco. He helped the Longhorns earn 20-plus wins in each of his seasons with the team before joining Dix’s staff two years ago.
Bracco’s connection with Dix helped Thompson get the Vikings assistant gig, and he was quickly impressed with how fiercely the East Hall community rallied around the program.
“I have a lot of friends who coach and teach, and you hear stories of schools and how they pull from the community, but East Hall is so different,” Thompson said. “It’s a really special place and has always been successful. The boys have had an incredible program from Day 1.”
Now it’s his job to keep the tradition going. Though he said the pressure of the position doesn’t bother him, Thompson acknowledged it’ll be tough to follow “a legend” like Dix.
The Dawsonville native, however, noted his predecessor faced a similar situation — Dix was an eight-year assistant for the Vikings before taking over for Seth Vining, who brought the program its first two state championships.
Dix upheld the standard, but Thompson sees a benefit of inheriting such high expectations.
“I’d rather be with this kind of culture here than one that you have to create on your own,” he said. “East Hall basketball has a lot of advantages that other schools don’t have, and I’m going to use them as much as possible.”
Thompson will continue to employ East Hall’s trademark full-court pressure — the same strategy that prompted his teenage drives from Dawsonville — albeit with a few tweaks based on personnel.
He had experience with the system even before joining the Vikings, though what he and Bracco ran at Lambert was a bit toned down with different terminology.
Thompson has already gotten a glimpse of his first East Hall team while easing his players into an increasingly difficult summer schedule. He said the Vikings were competitive deep into recent games against Class 7A Lambert and Class 6A Dacula, both annual playoff contenders.
“I’m extremely pleased with the short amount of time we’ve had to really work and get better in where we are,” Thompson said. “ … The kids are so awesome, and it’s neat to see the culture here.”
He doesn’t have to look at it from afar anymore.