East Hall boys coach Joe Dix was fully prepared to give his team a piece of his mind for a less than satisfactory effort at halftime of last Saturday’s Region 8-AA championship game, but quickly changed his mind when he witnessed what was unfolding right before his eyes.
As soon as Dix could get into the locker room, the Vikings were already involved in a full discussion about what needed to improve in order to leave Rabun County with a victory.
“It’s unbelievable the way they were all talking together and already had a full conversation going,” Dix said. “When I saw that, I just kind of left them alone.”
It seemed to work.
The Vikings (23-5) tightened things up in the second half and won the region championship. Now, No. 1-seeded East Hall is ready to open the playoffs against Decatur (20-9) at 7 p.m. Saturday in Gainesville. The Vikings are riding a 10-game winning steak heading into the postseason and hoping to make it back to Macon for the first time since 2007.
With seven seasons in charge of the East Hall program, Dix feels like the reason his team is so dangerous is its unity, led by a strong group of seniors: Dre Perry, Sterling Bailey, Kymon Woods and Chaz Cheeks.
The physical talent this group presents is impressive enough when you take into account they have the big bodies of Bailey and Cheeks inside that can rebound and score, along with the maturity of guards Woods and Perry who know how to read the floor.
“This year’s team is not quite as talented as some that I’ve coached,” Dix said. “But the chemistry they have is better than any I’ve had without a doubt.
“I’ve coached some teams where you have one or two guys that probably don’t like each other too much, but find a way to make it work on the court, but this group just really like playing and being around each other, and it shows.”
Woods, who averages 15 points a game, said that love for playing together goes back to the days playing YBOA basketball back in middle school together with the Gainesville Wildcats, a team they captured a state title together following their eighth-grade year.
Now, they’re trying to put it all together for a possible Class AA state championship before they part ways and go to different colleges.
“I just hate the maximum number of games I have left with this group of seniors is five more,” Dix said. “This is the kind of group that you want to hold on to because they are so much fun to be around.”
East Hall’s coach had the feeling that the possibility for a great 2010-11 season was right around the corner when he had confirmation that Bailey and Woods were going to be on the floor. Bailey, a University of Georgia football signee, opted not to play his junior season, while Woods, the 2010 Lanierland tournament MVP, missed last year after enduring his second torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“Getting those two guys back on the team was basically like having two Division-I transfers coming in,” Dix said.
Bailey decided to come back and play his senior season early in the fall, primarily to finish out his high school career with the group he came into the program with in 2007-08. It didn’t hurt that his teammates campaigned hard to bring Bailey, a center averaging eight points and 11 rebounds a game, back into the mix.
“I told Sterling, ‘we’re going to win the state title with or without you, but we want to have you out there with us,’” Woods said.
After football season was complete and he had a couple days to rest up, Bailey came out and recorded 12 rebounds in a scrimmage against Winder-Barrow and has been a rock in the paint ever since, according to Dix.
Dix had one conversation with Bailey prior to his return to basketball to discuss the subject of playing again. Dix’s only concern was if he would make basketball a priority with so many football commitments, including an appearance in the US Army All-American football game and an official campus visit to Georgia. He didn’t want a player on the team that was still on the fence about his commitment.
“I told Sterling, ‘you’re either in or you’re out,’” Dix said. “I didn’t want any tip-toeing.
“I told Sterling I wanted him back on the floor because he could be the final piece we needed to be complete.”
Similarly, having Woods back on the court was a big boost to the program. After having his knee surgically repaired by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., Woods had no doubt he was ready to play.
“When Kymon was cleared to play in late October, that was just as big as getting Sterling back on the court,” Dix said.
Another reason chemistry and cohesiveness have been so big at East Hall is because it showed Dix there was a change in the attitude. The Vikings started the season with only 12 players on the roster because Dix wanted to prove a point to the players: they needed to appreciate the tradition that wearing the East Hall uniform represented.
“They needed to see that wearing this uniform is something that they should cherish,” Dix said. “It wasn’t a birthright.”
That limited roster to begin the season has helped create depth that will last. East Hall’s leading scorer is junior Joshua Hampton at 19 points a game. The Vikings also have a group of sophomores that Dix likes playing: Hayden Chapman, Brian Edwards, Braden Jarrard and Daniel McCreavy.
Now, they’ve all got a singular focus at East Hall: bring home that state championship trophy.
“We just all love being around each other,” Cheeks said. “We’re an actual team, not just a group of guys that play together.”