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Hall County basketball programs look to continue success
Defending region champion Johnson boys return several key players
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From 2009-2013, Hall County high school basketball programs made five trips to the state semifinals.

The Gainesville and North Hall boys twice reached the semis during that five-year span, while the Lady Trojans also went to the Final Four in 2012.

And every season on both the boys’ and girls’ side, a number of programs in Hall County — one of the finest in the state for prep hoops — manage to make deep playoff runs across multiple classifications.

Despite not winning a state title since 2005, East Hall is always a force to be reckoned with in Region 7-AAA alongside 2013 state semifinalist Buford, while the Johnson boys look poised for a very strong season with five experienced starters taking the floor for the defending Region 8-AAAA champions.

The local high school hoops talent runs deep, and it doesn’t look to be dwindling anytime soon.

“I think we’re seeing a comeback so to speak with the basketball here in Hall County,” 10th-year East Hall coach Joe Dix said. “In general, we’ve got more really good programs than there have been before.”

Hall County features two prominent tournaments to go head-to-head in before teams split off into region play.

The Lanierland Tournament opens Dec. 14 at Flowery Branch and concludes Dec. 21 at Lakeview Academy.

Johnson High will host its own tournament during the Thanksgiving Holiday, while a talent-rich pool of teams will participate in the three-day Gainesville Invitational Holiday Tournament starting Dec. 26.

Even though the North Hall boys might have the biggest rebuilding project with five new starters on the heels of last season’s state semifinal appearance, first-year coach Tyler Sanders is excited about the job at hand.

“I can’t ask for a better place to be coaching,” said Sanders, who spent five years as assistant under former coach Benjie Wood.

Wood took the coaching job with Gainesville in the spring after it played in the Class AAAAA state championship game, while former Red Elephants coach Todd Cottrell is now the man in charge of Lakeview Academy’s boys program. Legendary high school coach Seth Vining retired from the Lions after the 2013 season with 745 career wins.

Three other local programs also usher in new coaches this season: the Flowery Branch boys (David Sokol), East Hall girls (Justin Wheeler) and West Hall girls (Bryan Richerson).

The East Hall boys have one of its deepest teams, according to Dix, in recent years with seven guys back that scored at least 15 points in a game last season. He’s led by a core group of seniors, including Caleb Holtzclaw, Antonio Maddox, Jordan Jackson, Quay Jarrells and Milton Whelchel, who have all been in the program for a number of years. The Vikings also have a couple juniors Dix feels are ready to break out on the Hall County hoops scene.

“I’m very excited about where we are as a program,” Dix said. “We have a good, cohesive group that might do something special this year.”

Despite Johnson coach Jeff Steele’s best efforts to keep expectations under control, he knows fans have pinpointed his program as the deepest with returning talent in Hall County.

The only piece Johnson had to replace from last year is post player Montrell McKenzie, who averaged 17 points per game.

Back from Johnson’s region title team are seniors Drew Dunham, Carter Cagle and James Hodges, along with juniors Ty Cockfield (18 points per game) and Roderick English (12).

The Knights’ coach expects the chase for the 8-AAAA title to go right down to the end and to be razor thin, similar to their 51-50 win against Eastside for a No. 1 seed in the postseason earlier this year. Steele expects Lanier and Eastside to also be contenders for the region title in February.

“We’re all excited for this season,” said Steele, who coached the Knights to a 24-5 record in 2013. “I feel like we have a very mature group of players.”

At Gainesville, Wood is excited about the opportunity at hand with a fresh group of players in a program surrounded with high expectations and a great tradition. Leading the way for the Red Elephants is 6-foot-6 center Ithello Cross, 6-5 post McKay Aiken and Norcross transfer Nnamdi Van Dulm, a 6-3 guard.

The Red Elephants’ new boys coach is looking forward to the process of building a winner like he did in his two previous stops with the North Hall boys and Johnson girls.

“My expectations are for the players to show up every day on time and work their tails off,” Wood said. “It sounds simple, but it’s what we’re focused on.”

West Hall coach Warren Sellers is led by senior Hunter Atkinson, the staple to the basketball program after averaging 12 points and eight rebounds last year. The Spartans also boast a talented point guard, Deandre Peoples, to help the transition for a large group of younger players to the varsity level.

“I feel like we’ll have more athleticism and depth than in the past,” said Sellers. “We should be strong on the defensive end, too.”

In Region 8-AA, Riverside Military was bolstered with the addition of Avery Cagle, who transferred in from North Hall, to go along with returning starters Jake Weiner, C.J. Howard and Ray Washington.

Chestatee returns 10-point per game point guard Jordan Pulliam, post Aaron Manders (8 ppg.) and 6-6 junior Hunter Creamer.

On the girls side, North Hall returns Sydney Cleveland, a junior, who went out last year with a season-ending knee injury after starting on the 2012 team that reached the state semifinals. Fellow juniors Katie Sayres and Kensi Gillespie are also back.

Meanwhile, Flowery Branch and Chestatee are looking to rebuild and recapture some of the success that came in 2013.

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