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High School Basketball previews: Area girls looking to build on last year's success
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Lakeview's Hanna Grogan (15) is fouled by Commerce's Nia Johnson (20) as she goes up for shot on Feb. 2 at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville. - photo by Erin O. Smith

The West Hall girls are still revved up from their post-Christmas awakening last January.

The Lady Spartans returned from the break rejuvenated, riding a 12-game winning streak to a region title and into the Elite Eight of the state basketball playoffs. They ultimately fell short in what was their first postseason appearance since 2005 and finished the year 21-9 overall.

That has Bryan Richerson’s returning players hungry for more.

“I really felt that win streak and winning a region championship has really given us a lot of confidence and belief in ourselves, and energized the girls to want to come back this year a lot stronger,” Richerson said. “I’ve got four seniors that wanna go out and win a region championship, and win a state championship. Seeing that success has really pushed them to want to continue that.”

Richerson continues to have his two best scoring threats steering the ship: first-team All-Region guard and 2016 Times Player of the Year Anna McKendree, and Macy Passmore, a second-team All-Area selection last year. McKendree set a record for points scored in a season with 678, and averaged 40 points a game for the Spartans. Passmore averaged 13.1 points and five rebounds.

Richerson has reason to be high on his bench play as well, an area he says has been lacking in the past. He hopes his younger players coming in will be able to step in and maintain leads.

“That’s one of the things we’re focusing on right now, because the more depth you have, the better you are coming into that third or fourth quarter,” he said. “It’s hard to guard two guards, you know, in high school basketball. Anna scores bunches, but we’ve got other weapons, too.”

The Spartans (0-1) tipped off their season with a 77-51 loss to one of the largest schools in the state, Mills Creek, and continued their nonregion slate with P.K. Yonge of Gainesville, Fla, followed by Apopka High School near Orlando.

“It doesn’t get any easier, but I did this for good reason, to prepare us for our region,” said Richerson, who noted Marist, Blessed Trinity and arch-rival Chestatee as serious competitors later on the docket.

“We’re gonna have to play really well, after January, when we get into region games. Hopefully that’s when we’ll start peaking. It is what we did last year.”

Lady Lions’ ‘Big Three’

John Carrick enters his seventh season at Lakeview Academy expecting big things from a unit capable of topping the feats of 2015-16, what he considers their most successful run.

It would require the Lions to outlast a stout tournament schedule comprised of top-tier competition from all round the Southeast, then powering through their Region 8-A slate to clinch a prospective third straight league championship. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

“That’s just words. You have to do those kinds of things and that’s up to the players,” said Carrick. “And we’re dealing with young girls here. There just ain’t no telling what you’ve got. But good group of kids.”

He’ll look to college recruits Ryann Moody, Hanna Grogan and Christen Copeland to lead the charge, a trio that has been “nucleus” of the program. All three have played under Carrick for at least one season.

The Lady Lions (23-7, 12-1 Region 8-A) compiled 23 wins and only one region loss to reach the state tournament for the third consecutive year, also getting solid output from his “big three.” Grogan, who recently signed with Emmanuel College, averaged 24 points on her way to a All-Region 8-A Player of the Year distinction. Teammate Moody, who signed with Brenau University Gainesville, received the Player of the Year honorable mention, while Copeland earned a spot on the All-Region 8-A squad.

Carrick believes a solid team chemistry amongst his players will determine how far they can stretch the limits.

“The leaders do a good job of leading, and the team does a good job of following,” Carrick said. “The seniors do a pretty good job of reinforcing what I say.”

Lakeview opened the season with a 64-52 win over Rabun Gap-Nacoochee on Thursday.

Battle-tested Red Elephants

Gainesville proved time and time again they could play with anyone, even without the luxury of an extra post player.

This undersized, but scrappy unit lost starting center/forward Mikeisha Battle to an illness early in the 2015-16, but had other players step up to overcome adversity.

That they did. The Red Elephants (19-7, 13-2 Region 8-AAAAA) finished second behind Flowery Branch in the regular season, and reached the second round of the state tournament with a 69-66 overtime win against Hiram.

“Our kids have a lot of fight and integrity, and they don’t give up,” said coach Brenda Hill-Gilmore. “Just a fun group of ladies who love the game of basketball. We have some really talented kids that really play hard and just get after it.”

Gilmore lost three key starters to graduation after last season. The departure of leading scorer Shikiya Brown (13 points per game) leaves one void to fill. The defensive grit shown on the court by senior All-Area honorable mentions Kayla Kelly and Breana Fair are things she’ll miss the most.

“We’re gonna miss that,” Gilmore said. We’re gonna miss Breana’s defense on the guards, her pressure. But we have some kids returning that we feel can take up some of the slack and give up some post play.”

Taylor Hawks (13 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 assist per game), who was All-Area, an AJC AAAAA honorable mention, and part of the All-Lanierland Tournament team, will be one of those returning pieces for Gilmore. Others to expected to step up this season include post player Sydney Payne, Mikeisha Battle, Tangi Miller and sophomore Tija Blackwell.

Tia Shelton, a recent move-in from Kentucky, is expected to quickly fill the guard position, while quickness and defensive prowess of point guard Jada Harrison will be key according to Gilmore.

Now competing in the Class AAAAAA, The Red Elephants face a tough schedule comprised of state contender Winder-Barrow — which returns nearly all of its roster, and that includes five-star prospect Olivia Nelson-Ododa — Habersham Central, Lanier and Dacula.

“Every night we step on the court, we’re gonna have to play hard,” Gilmore said. “We’re gonna have to play scrappy. That prepares you when you get to the state tournament.”

New-look Falcons

Flowery Branch is currently searching for its own identity after graduating five seniors that lifted the Lady Falcons to new heights last season.

The Falcons (29-2) dominated the field as the No. 3 program in the Class AAAAA, locking down Region 8 tournament title and a No. 1 playoff seed. Their run was cut short by No. 2 Brunswick in the Elite Eight last February.

Coach Courtney Newton is eager to see what her returning players can accomplish on their own.

“That core group is ready to step in and fill some of the shoes that we lost from last year,” Newton said.

The one to lead the flock will be the team’s top-scoring point guard Taniyah Worth, who averaged 12.1 points, 8.6 boards and 2.1 steals as a junior. Julianne Sutton is another key piece returning to the hardwood as the Falcons leading rebounder. Lexie Sengkhammee is a three-year starter bringing valued experience to the point guard position as well.

Wolves all accounted for

Gene Durden doesn’t see his Buford Lady Wolves slowing down anytime soon.

The Wolves are 288-63 under Durden while winning four Class AAAA championships (2009, 2010, 2011, 2015) in six appearances in the previous 11 years.

The Lady Wolves were 25-6 with an unbeaten record in region play in 2015-16. They advanced to the Class AAAA Final Four before falling to eventual state champion Americas-Sumter, ending their hopes of back-to-back state titles. Durden feels his group took a lot from the shortcomings of last seasons expectations.

“No doubt,” Durden said. “The experience of last season is really-really gonna help us out this season.”

Durden fully expects this program to continue a winning tradition despite being bumped up to Class AAAAA and is excited for the challenge of competing against schools like neighboring Flowery Branch and Loganville.

“We know there’s some state powers in (Class AAAAA),” Durden said. “Our schedule is very much loaded with state tournament teams, state champions from last year.”

It helps to return the entire rotation from last year’s final four squad as well as a couple of up-and-coming players, all possessing abilities to score in a variety of ways.

Those returning include four seniors and three juniors: returning Region 8-AAAA Player of the Year Tory Ozment (10.6 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists per game), point guard Pamela Johnson (senior, 5-foot-5), post player Zikaya Write (senior, 5-foot-11), forward Marissa Bruce (senior, 5-foot-7), shooting guard Rachel Dobbs (senior, 5-foot-6), forward Audrey Weiner (junior, 5-foot-10) and post player Jessica Nelson (junior, 6-foot-2). Ozment is currently being scouted by various Division I schools across the country.

Playing aggressive, hustling, pressing defense from the full court to the half court, coupled with a fast-paced transition offense, continues to be the M.O. of the team.

North Hall seniors seek strong finish

It’s been two years since the Lady Trojans have tasted the Sweet 16 of the state playoffs. The seniors of North Hall insist on changing the narrative this go around now in the Class AAA.

Returning All-Area honorable mentions Sadie Cleveland and Tatum McQuillen are two of three starters who boosted the Lady Trojans to their fourth-straight trip to the Class AAAA tournament in 2015-16. They fell to Carrollton 77-70 in the opening round to finish 16-13 overall.

McQuillen and Cleveland recently signed to play college hoops, McQuillen to Brenau University in Gainesville and Cleveland to Georgia College. Taylor Anne Kelley and recent Ohio State softball recruit Niki Carver are others to return to this senior-stacked squad.

“They just really want to get back to the state tournament and we’re excited about playing in a new region,” House said. “Really, it’s just a great bunch of kids of the court. They’re fun to coach and fun to watch play basketball, play fast up and down the court.”

The Lady Spartans (0-1) opened the season with a 56-43 loss to Banks County on Nov. 15.

War Eagles stacked with seasoned veterans

A promising summer which saw Chestatee rattle out 27 straight wins has coach Web Daniel confident in what he has returning to the floor.

The War Eagles clinched their first postseason berth in eight years back in February, eventually finishing 12-14 with a 5-3 mark in the Region 8-AAAA. Daniel expects even more from his six seniors and three juniors coming back.

“Twenty seven-straight wins this summer was big deal for us, and it was against some good teams all around,” Daniel said. “I thought the girls had a great offseason. The summertime really did well for them.”

Junior shooting guard Lindsey Caudell should be the frontrunner, as she averaged 15 points a game for the War Eagle en route to earning an All-Area honorable mention as a sophomore.

Youthful Vikings

Justin Wheeler wouldn’t be surprised if East Hall experiences some growing pains to start the season. He just hopes they can learn from them.

With Kylah Mize as the lone senior in his returning core group, Wheeler showcases a youthful bunch, including a string of freshmen and sophomores he anticipates will see some valuable minutes as well.

The Vikings fell a little short last year, going 21-7 overall and 10-2 in the Region 7-AAA to secure a spot in the Class AAA tourney. They fell to Ringgold in the opening round in February.

The Vikings lose the athleticism and speed of Ashlyn Ellison, a first-team All-Region selection who averaged 14.2 points, and converted 44 percent of her shots from the floor in her final season. Wheeler said those attributes are hard to replicate, but he’ll expect guard Carly Winters to step in Ellison’s place, and make it a group effort to fill the void on the court as well.

“We’re just gonna have to work together as a team, try and create some of the chaos she helped caused on defense,” said Wheeler.

Winters (16 points, 45 percent field goal percentage, 40 percent on 3-pointers) earned second-team All-Region honors as a sophomore. Junior teammate Summer Lindsey will be one of the more vocal leaders and leading rebounders for the Vikings.

“The girls have been working hard, and we’re just trying hard to put it in fruition, and go out on the court, play with confidence, be aggressive” Wheeler said. “At the end of the day, we want the game to be enjoyable and that’s how we wanna play.”

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