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High School Basketball previews: Area boys teams geared toward guard-heavy seasons
Winder-Barrow's Jay Griggs (23) guards Flowery Branch's Brannon Clark (10) as he goes up for a shot on Jan. 12 at Flowery Branch High School in Flowery Branch. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Lakeview Academy coach Todd Cottrell is happy to reflect on what his boys were able to do last season. An undefeated, 13-0 region record — 25-5 overall — a top finish in the regular season, winning the region tournament and an appearance in the Elite Eight of the state tournament.

“We had some really good players last year that played together really well,” Cottrell said. “The years before that, we had some good teams in our region that were stacked. Last year, it was one of those years where it was the perfect storm for us.”

The Elite Eight run was the furthest the Lions have ever been in the state tournament.

This year, Cottrell will be heavy in experience and depth.

Four of the five starters from last year return, with the exception being point guard Daniel Fadool, who is playing at Toccoa Falls College now.

“The group we have, we have a lot of guys that have played together for a while,” Cottrell said. “They understand what each other’s strengths are and there’s a pretty good chemistry on the court right now. They’re just very familiar with each other.”

Three of the four returning starters are seniors, including 6-foot-5 forward Carter Reeves, 6-foot-2 guard Josh Randolph and 6-foot-3 forward Tre Gober. Junior guard Drew Cottrell, a 6-foot-3 sharp shooter, is the fourth returning starter.

With each of the expected starters standing over 6-foot-2 and reserves ranging from 5-foot-11 to 6-foot-8, the Lions will have great size on the floor this season.

“I think we’ve got good size, I really do, but I think there are people in our league that have equal size,” Cottrell said. “Our size should help us some, but people in our league are pretty big too. We should match up pretty well in our region.”

Guard-heavy Trojans

North Hall is coming off a season in which it posted a 21-8 record with a 7-1 mark in region play. The Trojans made a first-round appearance in the state playoffs, but dropped their first-round game to Carrollton at the buzzer.

North Hall coach Tyler Sanders said with the Trojans dropping back down into Class AAA, the region is “very balanced” with “a lot of good teams and coaches.”

The Trojans will return Evan Easton, who will be starting for the fourth straight season, and Jake Meeler. Easton averaged 14 points per game a year ago and Meeler will provide a strong presence on the inside on the defensive end of the floor.

At 6-foot-3, Easton is the tallest player on North Hall’s roster this season, leaving the Trojans very guard heavy.

Being able to post such a strong record last year and get into the postseason was “a good accomplishment” according to Sanders. It’s an accomplishment the Trojans hope to build on this year.

Versatile Red Elephants

Gainesville coach Benjie Wood said he’s a big fan of the versatility of his team. Wood’s players can all play various styles and positions on the floor.

Because of that, the Red Elephants emphasize a “positionless” philosophy.

The Red Elephants will return juniors Bailey Minor and KJ Buffen from last year’s squad. The 6-foot-5 Minor and 6-foot-4 Buffen are both two-year starters. Gainesville lost The Times’ 2015-16 All-Area Player of the Year D’Marcus Simonds to graduation. Simonds is now playing at Georgia State.

Gainesville was 21-6 a year ago with a perfect 17-0 region record. The Red Elephants made it to the second round of last year’s Class AAAAA state playoffs, but lost to McIntosh in the final seconds in Peachtree City.

Wood has set up an early non-region schedule with the likes of St. Pius X and Milton, which should prepare Gainesville well for region play come early January.

Revamped War Eagles

Chestatee is under the direction of first-year head coach Kevin Strickland with former coach Chad Pittman moving on to Lumpkin County after last season.

The War Eagles, coming off a winless 0-23 schedule, are set to turn things around.

“We didn’t win a game last year, so we are simply trying to find a win and get that monkey off our back,” Strickland said. “Our kids have worked extremely hard this offseason and have earned the right to win games, that’s for sure.”

The War Eagles have four returning starters in point guard Donovan Hernandez, scoring guard Cooper Wilson, forward Nick Lyles and forward Barron King. Strickland was able to recruit a few players from within the hallways to help add some depth.

Joel Salcido, Moises Cuevas and Reggie James will all be new additions to the program.

Strickland said the guard play will be the strength of the team with good shooters bolstering the offense. Wilson is one who can be expected to score from deep or by taking the ball to the rim.

On the other side of the coin, Strickland said the team will be learning a new system and still learning each other’s strengths. Those two things will need to be improved to prove for a successful season.

Strickland, who has served as a junior varsity coach and varsity assistant at Brookwood High for the last 10 years, is serving in his first head coaching position this season.

Experienced Falcons

Flowery Branch is coming off a season in which it missed the state playoffs, but the experience coming back could mean a turnaround is on the way this season.

The Falcons will have Brannon Clark, John Mills, Blake Coxworth and Dalton Gerdts back this year.

Clark, a 5-foot-10 wing, is touted as an “athletic wing that can play multiple positions” by coach David Sokol.

Mills, also a 5-foot-10 wing, is a three-year starter that can score from anywhere on the floor.

Coxworth is a 6-foot-1 guard who sees the floor well and is very unselfish.

Gerdts, the tallest member of the team, is 6-foot-5 and can hit shots from beyond the 3-point arc.

Sokol has added Justin Quick, Caleb Murphy, Myles Janess and Patsheko Lutumba to the squad this season, with each having excellent chances at getting significant playing time.

Despite the new members of the region this season, Sokol said he’ll expect his players to prepare the same every day and will stick to their foundation no matter who they’re playing.

Knights relying on depth

Johnson is bringing back a huge list of players from last season.

Dwayne Wilson, Marcus Jones, Issac Hernandez, Qua Butler, Alex Sims, Chan Jones and Kylan Curry will all be back on the floor for the Knights. All seven have varsity experience.

The Knights will also be looking at move-in player Will Richter to be a boost. Richter is 6-foot-3 and is described by coach Tim Slater as a “3-point sharpshooter.” Slater also said Richter is being looked at by several colleges because of his length and athleticism.

Being eight deep is something Slater is looking forward to, but his freshman class is exciting him as well.

“It’s kind of nice,” Slater said. “We can play eight kids without any drop off. The scary part is our freshman class is pushing a lot of these guys in practice. Practice is ultra competitive and fun.”

The Knights are coming off a 7-18 overall record and a 3-5 mark in the region. The new region after Johnson bumped up from 8-AAAA to 8-AAAAA is going to be a major test.

According to Slater, Cedar Shoals was preseason No. 3 in the state with Buford close behind at No. 5. Walnut Grove finished in the Final Four of the state tournament a year ago and Flowery Branch was the Lanierland Tournament champion. Clarke Central is much improved with several move-in players.

“Our region may be the second most talented region in AAAAA behind the DeKalb County region,” Slater said.

While the region did change, Slater said he and his team have remained focused on themselves rather than what’s upcoming on the schedule.

“The goal for us is and has been individual improvement through basketball fundamentals and IQ, which will carry over into the team,” Slater said. “More importantly, we need to ensure our guys have the skills and opportunity to play at the next level.”

East Hall

The Vikings will be bringing back 3-point shooter Luke Cooper and forward Sedrion Morse from last season’s squad, which won the Region 7-AAA tournament a year ago.

The region tournament win was the second in a row and 25th in school history as they topped Lumpkin County for the crown.

Morse was a big reason for East Hall to have a chance at that title as he hit a last-second layup in the semifinal game against West Hall, securing a 54-52 win to move into the championship game.

The Vikings finished the season 21-8 overall with an 11-2 mark on the region schedule. Both region losses came against Banks County.

East Hall’s sparked run came to a close in the second round, a 79-59 loss to Westside. In the first round, the Vikings hit 17 3-pointers against Ringgold to win 86-59.

West Hall

The Spartans are coming off a season in which it made the state playoffs, but fell in the first round to Calhoun.

West Hall will bring back Xavier Reid, a junior guard, from last season’s team who put in significant minutes.

This season, Bobby Pless has taken over as coach.

Riverside Military

The Eagles were a 14-10, 9-3 team last year in Region 8-AA. This season, with the reclassification, Riverside Military has dropped back to Region 8-A.

The Eagles will return Mason Green, Wiley Burns and Garrett Wilson from last season’s squad.

Regional events