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Hall County's beastly ballers
"Bulked up" players making pressence felt for local teams this season
Gainesville’s A.J. Johnson is a major college football prospect and one of Hall County’s most intimidating basketball players.

Athens Christian at Lakeview Academy, girls 6 p.m., boys 7:30 p.m.

Apalachee at Habersham Central, girls 7 p.m., boys 8:30 p.m.

Banks County at Walnut Grove, girls 6:30 p.m., boys 8 p.m.

Buford at Westminster, girls 6 p.m., boys 7:30 p.m.

Chestatee at White County, girls 7 p.m., boys 8:30 p.m.

Commerce at Jefferson, girls 7 p.m., boys 8:30 p.m.

East Hall at Gainesville, girls 7 p.m., boys 8:30 p.m.

East Jackson at Dawson County, girls 6 p.m.

Johnson at West Forsyth, girls 7 p.m., boys 8:30 p.m.

Riverside at Dawson County, 7:30 p.m.

Stephens County at Jackson County, girls 7 p.m., 8:30 p.m.

West Hall at Flowery Branch, girls 7 p.m., boys 8:30 p.m.

Johnson boys basketball coach Jeff Steele had to cringe a little as he saw the play start to unfold against Gainesville last Friday.

As Red Elephants junior A.J. Johnson, a sure-fire future Division-I linebacker, drove into the lane, the only thing standing in his way was Knights senior Grant Cagle, who was willing to take one for the team in hopes of drawing a charge. What resulted was a one-handed dunk by Johnson, who has about a 50-pound advantage on Cagle, that shook the rim and brought an entire gymnasium to its feet.

Luckily, Cagle managed to get out of the line of fire of the 230-pound Johnson.

“That dunk almost killed Grant,” Steele said.

This type of brute strength of the basketball court has been on display at a high rate this season. More bulked-up basketball players are showing up on the court, which is also a testament to the strength programs carried out for football.

After the football season ends, many players hop over to the gym, at the same time squashing the long-held image of the basketball player long on length, but short on brute strength.

“We have some stud football players in this county and they’re also pretty good basketball players too,” North Hall coach Benjie Wood said. “As an opposing coach, it gives you headaches trying to prepare for, but at the same time, I have a lot of respect for what they can do.”

The image of bigger basketball players — whether legitimate or just a perception — could be a product of year-round weight training or just a cycle of gifted athletes who happen to be playing at the same time.

“It’s more than just muscle, it’s their athleticism and agility,” said East Hall coach Joe Dix, who coaches Chaz Cheeks, a Division-I prospect in football. “These big football players move really well on the basketball court.”

Dix can attest to the fact that this wave of big football players excelling in basketball isn’t just a local craze. During Christmas, East Hall squared off against Goose Creek High (S.C.), which features 6-foot-6, 290-pounder Brandon Shell — the nephew of former Oakland Raiders coach Art Shell — a highly recruited Class of 2011 prospect.

And don’t forget, one’s of the nation’s top college football prospects, offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson (6-8, 301), is also considered one of the top high school basketball players in the state of Minnesota.

Of course, the list of these local players feels a little more expanded.

North Hall’s Imani Cross is cut from the same cloth as Gainesville’s Johnson. Cross, only a sophomore, is about 6-foot-1, 220 pounds and probably also destined for a football career in college. Of course, now opposing basketball coaches are having to scheme to counter the way he creates mismatches just by his sheer strength and size.

Last week against Gilmer, in one of his first games for the Trojans, Cross had a forceful collision going for a loose ball. As a result, the much smaller player from Gilmer came up on the losing end and was flung to the ground — the thud that resulted would be expected when 220 pounds crosses paths at full speed with less than 150.

“I was worried for that other kid at first,” Wood said.

North Hall may have the biggest collection of muscular football players (Cross, Robert Humphrey and Trevor Ross) that also play basketball pretty well, too.

Now Wood gets the task of trying to minimize Johnson’s impact around the basket on Saturday night when the Trojans and Red Elephants collide. He says it is no secret that they’ll have to box Johnson out.

“We have to know where A.J. is on every single play,” Wood said. “As a player, his motor never stops.”

And don’t forget about the linemen. Some of them play basketball, too, perhaps few better than Johnson senior E.J. Wright.

The same player that led the Knights defense from his tackle position in the fall, also does as good a job as anyone grabbing rebounds — about 13 per game, according to Steele. Wright, who weighs around 360 pounds, suprises many with his ability to move so fluidly on the basketball court .

“E.J. is a freakish athlete,” Steele said. “It’s really impressive that today’s athletes are so versatile and can carry big bodies so well on the court.”