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Area coaches, former players recall Lanierland tournaments tradition, raucous atmosphere
Tournament to be held at Johnson High and East Hall High from Dec. 28-30
East Hall’s Ashlyn Ellison dribbles while Gainesville’s Kayla Kelly (left) and Breana Fair (right) defend during a re-creation of the play Wednesday in Gainesville. Area teams will tip off the 56th installment of the Lanierland basketball tournament today at Johnson High. - photo by Erin O. Smith

2015 Lanierland Tournament
Today at Johnson High
First round

10:30 a.m. – East Hall girls (No. 4 seed) vs. Chestatee (No. 5 seed)

Noon – Chestatee boys (No. 4 seed) vs. Flowery Branch (No. 5 seed)

1:30 p.m. – North Hall girls (No. 3 seed) vs. Lakeview Academy (No.
6 seed)

3 p.m. – Flowery Branch girls (No. 2 seed) vs. West Hall (No. 7 seed)

4:30 p.m. – East Hall boys (No. 3 seed) vs. Lakeview Academy (No. 6 seed)

6 p.m. – Gainesville girls (No. 1 seed) vs. Johnson (No. 8 seed)

7:30 p.m. – Johnson boys (No. 1 seed) vs. West Hall (No. 8 seed)

When Kayla Kelly got an earful from Gainesville coach Brenda Hill-Gilmore during her first Lanierland tournament three years ago as a freshman, Kelly made sure to listen close and listen well.

She was hearing from someone who’s seen it all before.

“I was making tons of mistakes,” said Kelly, now a senior. “Coach told me to get back on defense, to be smart and not think about any of that. I didn’t worry after that, because everyone picked me back up.”

The Lady Red Elephants (6-2) enter this year’s 56th installment of the Hall County basketball tournament as the two-time defending champions, but can expect stiff competition from a host of teams, including undefeated Flowery Branch (11-0). The two teams met in last year’s Region 8-AAAAA championship game.

Hill-Gilmore, who played for East Hall High from 1979 to 1982, recalled a “jittery and nervous” atmosphere each time she stepped out on the court in front of a standing-room only crowd at the tournament.

Like Kelly, Hill-Gilmore started as a freshman at Lanierland. The coach said last week that she still gets compliments on how the Vikings played during her time in high school.

Said Hill-Gilmore: “I tell my kids, they’ll say ‘Coach B, look how big the crowd is,’ and I said, ‘You’ll be nervous and a little overwhelmed, but after two or three plays, you’ll start to play basketball and not even know how many people are in the gym.’”

The Falcons are unbeaten under first-year head coach Courtney Newton, who took over in the offseason following the retirement of Hazel Hall. As a freshman, Newton helped Flowery Branch to a 2003 Lanierland title before later going on to play at the University of South Carolina.

Now she’ll lead her alma mater from the sideline Monday.

“I don’t think the tournament’s changed, but the tradition has gotten richer,” said Newton. “Any time you win it or coach it, you get an amazing feeling. No matter who’s supposed to win, anything can happen.”

First-year head coach Zac Swansey will lead the West Hall boys into a “prime-time” game today against top-seeded Johnson at 7:30 p.m. A former standout for Flowery Branch and the University of Georgia, Swansey said he’s telling his Spartans to cherish the journey. The coach said every player and coaches circles the dates for Lanierland when they are released.

“Every game is important,” said Swansey. “It’s about pride. As a coach, you have to tell them to relax. At the end of the day, it’s still a basketball game, and you still have to execute.”

South Hall principal C.W. Davis began the tournament 56 years ago, hoping to begin an annual tournament that local teams could play in close to home.

When the tournament first tipped off in Jan. 1961, it featured just four schools (East Hall, North Hall, South Hall and Gainesville). This week, 15 teams will open the tournament from eight different schools. The lone area exception will be the Gainesville boys, who withdrew from the tournament following a two-game suspension for an altercation during a recent tournament game in Kentucky.

“The way things have turned out, it looks good,” said Davis, 95. “It’s something the kids enjoyed and we kept going.”

History is precious for basketball fans in Hall County. North Hall coach Kristi House, hoping to lead her Trojans team to its first title since 2009, said she sometimes hears from alumni who will reminisce about teams the Trojans’ coach was a player in the late 1980s when North Hall won three straight titles from 1986-88.

House helped her North Hall team win Lanierland titles in her freshman, sophomore and senior years. Two of House’s assistant coaches have also played in the tournament.

“Our seniors do a good job of bringing everyone along,” said House. “One time, there was a banner from the 70s left down. It wasn’t very long before that was brought to our attention. That’s something you don’t do. You remember Lanierland.”

The East Hall boys team (24 titles) and the East Hall girls team (17 titles) both lead the area with the most Lanierland championships.

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