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Building champions: Stars past and present started as Wildcats
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East Hall High freshman Chaz Cheeks rarely sees the floor this season with the Vikings varsity team, but still has more basketball game experience than many high school players in Hall County.

Sure, he’d like to see more game action. But playing for a tradition-rich program like East Hall, it’s part of the deal to wait your turn to become a starter.

And Cheeks is perfectly fine with that.

He still has about 100 basketball games on his itinerary this year when you take into account varsity, junior varsity and, most prominently, his role on the local YBOA basketball institution known at Gainesville Wildcats.

Cheeks doesn’t have to play with the Wildcats. With a school-year full of football and basketball, he’d be justified in wanting to take some time away from team sports.

But this young member of the Vikings understands the pay off of playing with a program that has the opportunity to spend the summer traveling not only through the state of Georgia, but all around the southeast.

"The Wildcats are a great team with a great reputation," Cheeks said. "Everyone in Hall County knows who the Wildcats are."

The list of players that have come before Cheeks on the Gainesville Wildcats in recent years is enough to fill an entire college roster. East Hall grads Frank Davis, Lee Coleman, Marquez Jackson, Keldrick Coleman, Jerrenda Wheeler, Brody Langston and Johnson grad Marquise Wright, among others, are recent high school graduates that attached their name to the reputation of the Wildcats program.

And this year’s senior class of Vikings starters, including Ken Wise, Trevor Bishop, Dedric Ware and Tracey Gardner all have come through this program, before becoming part of the history at Valhalla.

But what is the link between the Wildcats summer basketball program and successful high school athletes? YBOA and AAU programs come a dime a dozen across the state.

"Well, I think the kids are just very talented first of all," East Hall coach Joe Dix said. "Playing with the Wildcats teaches the kids to play uptempo basketball and pressure defense, as well as how to play as a team.

"And once the summer is over, they’re ready to go."

Cheeks isn’t the only freshman on the Vikings varsity that is coming through the ranks of the Gainesville Wildcats program. He is joined by power forward Sterling Bailey and the varsity backup point guard Kymon Woods.

Cheeks, Bailey and Woods are part of a crop of high school freshman that have created a buzz around Hall County as future standouts. Joined by West Hall freshman two-sport standout Shunquez Stephens and Gainesville’s Demonte Broadway, the Wildcats have amassed quite a distinguished record in recent seasons — most recently with the 14-and-under Wildcats — with a 66-10 mark over the past two summers of competition.

And this group of Gainesville Wildcats have bragging rights over any other AAU or YBOA team to come through Hall County. Last season, they became the first YBOA team to ever bring a state title back to Hall County. They also placed fourth in the national tournament in Orlando, Fla. in the summer of 2006.

"They all love to play basketball together and spend time with each other," Wildcats coach Mark DeFoor said. "Even though these guys go to different schools, they are very good friends."

The main lure of playing with the Wildcats is the ability to play against elite competition from all over the country. That level of competition makes the transition to high school basketball much less of a growing pain.

But after coaching this group for a few years, it’s already clear for DeFoor that the ceiling of opportunity for this group extends beyond the high school level, even for those that are two-sport athletes.

"I think their opportunities are limitless," DeFoor added. "There is so much ability and potential with this group of players."

According to DeFoor, this group of Wildcats started when he went through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County looking to start a younger team. Little did he know at the time the group he would assemble.

Cheeks joined the program after the fourth grade. Now a freshman, he says the team needed another big guy at the time, and he wanted to keep playing once the school year was over. Cheeks, Bailey and Broadway have been a foundation for the group, all playing together for five years now.

Stephens stumbled into the program a couple of years ago. He was at one of his brothers’ AAU games, and his father Fred Stephens made the acquaintance of DeFoor. He admits the experience playing with an elite AAU program has furthered his game immensely, and is already the "sixth man" on the West Hall varsity team, averaging 11 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

Now that they are playing at the varsity level, these players don’t want to let their different school allegiances get in the way of being friends. But it does make it difficult to play against someone who they spend an entire summer with.

"It does make it hard to play against each other," Stephens said. "But it is a benefit to be able to read what the other guy is going to do on the court."

Still, these players can laugh about it all when the games over.

"We’ve got a great friendship together and have grown so close together," Stephens added. "We’re really like one family."

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