East Hall coach Joe Dix said the new Region 7-AAA is probably the toughest region his team has been in for quite a while.
Buford, North Hall, West Hall, Dawson County and the others might very well agree. The eight-team region combines a number of quality programs that have had success in recent years and, especially in the top half, it promises a number of big-time matchups.
Dix, whose team won three state championships in the 2000s — with Dix as an assistant and then at the helm — and went to the second round of the state tournament last season, had a bit of a challenge looking for a region title favorite.
“Buford should be the favorite, based on who they have returning and the transfers they’ve gotten,” he said. “But Dawson County beat them at state, and they beat us, and they return their whole team, so maybe they should be the favorites.
“And North Hall’s returning a lot of guys, they’re well-coached and they’re going to be right there in the mix. It will really come down to who’s playing best at the time.”
The semifinals and finals of the region tournament will be hosted at North Hall, but the likely championship contenders will have already played each other twice before then with the 14-game, home-and-away region schedule.
In other words, a lot of quality basketball is on tap.
“I don’t know if reclassification did us any favors,” West Hall coach Warren Sellers said. “The region’s small but it’s tough.”
Buford, North Hall, East Hall and Dawson County all made the state playoffs last season, with Dawson County defeating Buford in the second round in Class AA before falling in the quarterfinals in Dalton. North Hall reached the second round.
West Hall reached the second round of the state tournament the year prior, but missed out last season.
The Wolves look to be the favorite on paper, with Tennessee recruit A.J. Davis returning and a talented cast around him to make up for the loss of forward T.J. Shipes, but Dawson County returns all five starters from a team that held off Buford 42-35 in Dawsonville last season. North Hall returns star guard Ebo Smith and a number of last season’s other key players, and East Hall, despite losing The Times Player of the Year J.C. Hampton to graduation, will be dangerous again with No. 2 scorer Brian Edwards and sharpshooter Hayden Chapman returning.
“It’s going to be a dogfight every night,” North Hall coach Benjie Wood said. “Buford goes out on the floor and looks like an ACC team, and Dawson’s got all five starters back.”
The Wolves, on both the girls and boys side, can’t be overlooked. The boys were state runners-up two years ago and feature a host of college prospects, and the girls, who feature the No. 2-ranked player in the nation in Kaela Davis, according to ESPNU, finished second at state last season and won the three titles prior.
“We’re really excited right now; we’ve got a good bit of experience back, and we think we can compete,” West Hall girls coach Lynn Jarrett said. “But everybody’s chasing Buford.”
That doesn’t mean the players aren’t excited to go up against the new region’s early favorite.
“We’re excited to play them,” North Hall senior Griffin Olson said of the Wolves. “We want to see how we match up against the best teams.”
Lady Spartans senior Kaelyn Gattis agreed, “It’s very exciting to play the best.”
They’ll all get their chance; region play starts in early December.
Notes: Region 8-AAAAA teams will play a 14-game region schedule, including a home and away for each opponent, while 8-AAAA also plays a straight region schedule, but plays against each other team just once. ... With Gainesville moving up to 8-AAAAA, Lady Red Elephants coach Brenda Hill-Gilmore will be back in familiar territory. She coached at Winder-Barrow in the old 8-AAAA until last season, and the Bulldoggs, as well as most of the other teams from the region, will all be together again along with Gainesville. ... One of the main goals for the Chestatee girls this season, according to assistant coach Danielle Cleveland, is to get past the second round of the state tournament. The team has been there the last two seasons, and returns nearly all of last year’s pieces for another run. ... Montrell McKenzie, who led the area in blocks and rebounds last season, is back for his senior season at Johnson and will be looked at to power the offense as well. He says he’s been working on his right hand, after exclusively going to his left on drives last season. ... The Lakeview boys are as deep as they’ve ever been, according to coach Seth Vining, and boast a unique situation: three point guards with extensive starting experience, enabling the Lions to substitute often without losing production.