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East Hall girls 'ready to battle,' looking forward to replicating last year's playoff run
Lady Vikings (16-4) leading Region 7-AAA, enjoying hot start to season
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East Hall's Ashlyn Ellison (11) shoots a free throw during a Dec. 8 game against Dawson County at East Hall High School. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Of all the superstitions and tongue-in-cheek gameday rituals that East Hall employs, its pre-game lineup seems to be the most standard.

Each time they’re introduced on the court, the Lady Vikings line up in a very specific order on the bench or out of the tunnel, just to curry a little more of their recent good juju. (VIDEO AND PRACTICE HIGHLIGHTS HERE)

“It’s Ashlyn (Ellison) in the front, then Carly (Winters), then the younger players in the middle, Summer comes next, Jenny (Edwards) and then I’m in the back,” said sophomore guard Kylah Mize. “If we don’t do this, it’s just not our gameday.”

That’s when the Lady Vikings let their play have all the focus. 

East Hall (16-4, 7-1) has used a balanced attack and a lockdown defense to shoot to the top of Region 7-AAA, bolstering confidence that the team can replicate last year’s thrilling playoff run. The Lady Vikings rattled off seven wins in eight games to reach the Class AAA state semifinals during the 2014-15 season before falling to eventual state runners-up Beach, 47-38.

Since then, East Hall has looked even more impressive. The Lady Vikings have already secured their best 20-game start in coach Justin Wheeler’s tenure and notched a marquee win on the road earlier this month by toppling then-undefeated region foe Dawson County in Dawsonville. The Lady Tigers beat East Hall in last year’s 7-AAA title game.

“We have really big confidence,” said Ellison, a junior point guard. “We think we can compete against any team. We’ll be ready to battle, come the playoffs.”

Using the lessons learned from last year’s postseason experience, Vikings players said Thursday they felt more bonded as a team, which has helped their on-court communication. Whereas last season, East Hall may have been more prone to rush shots, the team has adopted a policy to look for the pass whenever it’s available in order to create a better look.

Wheeler has seen four different shooters lead the team in scoring so far this season, a statistic he contributes to unselfish play. The Lady Vikings are averaging 59 points per game.

“It’s one of our strengths,” said Wheeler. “We go into each game with our base offense and keep things balanced. We don’t target one person, it’s about team ball.” 

Whether it was going out to dinner together, hanging out in a hotel room on the road or singing on the bus on the way to and from games (High School Musical’s “We’re All In This Together” was a favorite, according to Mize), East Hall’s players found a way to keep things light away from the bright lights.

And if that means creating a few on-court rituals, so be it. Mize and Edwards have taken to regularly rolling their shorts on gameday, according to Ellison, who tends to go with a rolled-up sleeve look. Mize believes that the one time that she didn’t wear kneepads led to her team losing.

“This year, we’ve gotten to be closer together,” said Mize. “It’s about us bonding as a team and being stronger for it.”

East Hall is currently ranked No. 2 in Class AAA, just behind defending state champions Laney High from Augusta. The Lady Vikings next host Gainesville at 7 p.m. Saturday before finishing out their region schedule against Lumpkin County (Jan. 26), Fannin County (Jan. 29), at West Hall (Feb. 2) and at Franklin County (Feb. 5).

Winters said on Thursday that the pressure isn’t on for the Lady Vikings, even as their goals are high. Given the perfect storm of effort, attitude and hard work, Ellison said the team believes it can reach the state title game for the first time since 2007. East Hall is allowing just 47 points per game so far this season.

“We’ve talked about it a lot,” said Winters. “We can get there if we play our best game. It’s hard to believe our record is as good as it is right now. We’re all really excited.”

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