The favorite: With size, speed, quickness, a roster uninterrupted by football and an undefeated record, West Hall goes into Lanierland as the favorite to win the title. The Spartans (5-0) are the No. 1 seed and are off to the program’s best start since the 2004-05 season.
The darkhorse: Gainesville, the tournament’s No. 8 seed, might be winless this season but has also been without some key contributors due to an extended football season. Those players, which include Blake Sims, Nick Johnson, A.J. Johnson, Juwon Jeffries and Brock Boleman, might have arrived at just the right time.
The favorite: Defending Region 7-AAA champion Gainesville, which returns all five starters from 2007, is the favorite to win the girls title. Jaymee Carnes (12 points per game) leads a Lady Red Elephants’ team that is averaging 41 points per game. Gainesville is the No. 3 seed in the tournament which should just go to show that seedings mean little in Lanierland.
The darkhorse: The two darkhorses and the two favorites meet in the first round of Lanierland, which is a shame. The Chestatee girls have depth and a team that rises and falls with the play of Peyton Robertson and Chelsea Wilson. The two combine to lead a team with stellar high-low offensive attack and frustrating defense.
It was in 1959 that a small basketball tournament was started out of necessity.
The four Hall County schools in existence at that time wanted a tournament to participate in, but not have to travel to.
Thus, C.W. Davis founded the Lanierland Tournament.
“We wanted to be able to share expenses and knew we could rotate the tournament from school to school,” said Davis, the former South Hall High principal.
Forty-nine years, 96 championship games and four additional teams later, Lanierland is the longest-running basketball tournament in Georgia.
“I never dreamed it would last this long,” Davis said.
It has, however, and along the way become quite the experience for all involved.
“I didn’t know anything about Lanierland coming from Alabama,” said East Hall coach Joe Dix, whose team has won six straight Lanierland titles. “We get to that first game and it’s jam-packed and I immediately got the feel that it was a special tournament.”
When it began, Lanierland was the only chance for all the Hall County schools to compete against one another in a tournament setting. That’s changed in recent years, and with the exception of Lakeview Academy, all the competing schools are members of Region 7-AAA.
As a result, the view by some is that Lanierland has lost its luster. That more than anything it’s become a forum to scout the season’s competition, and simply a precursor to the region tournament.
“If there’s a downside to Lanierland it’s that you get tired of playing the same people,” current West Hall girls’ coach and former East Hall player Lynn Jarrett said. “It’s always a goal to win it, but it’s a preparation-type atmosphere more than anything now.”
Regardless of what the tournament means now, or doesn’t mean, the gyms will still be packed from wall-to-wall and the team winning on the scoreboard at the end of the championship game will still celebrate.
“There’s a lot of anticipation before the tournament,” Dix said. “The kids get a little antsy, I’m a little on edge.
“For our guys its not only Hall County bragging rights, it’s a chance to keep being winners.”
“This tournament is important for bragging rights,” West Hall coach Warren Sellers said. “It’s well-thought of throughout the state and prestigious. It’s an honor to be part of it.”
An honor coaches aren’t hesitant to share with their players.
“We’ve started emphasizing to the girls in practice that in this county and state it’s a big deal,” first-year North Hall coach Bryan Richerson said of the tournament. “And for you to be part of it is very special.”
The spectacle that is the Lanierland Tournament can be overwhelming, especially for first-year coaches and freshmen.
Richerson, whose North Hall team boasts two freshmen starters and a rotation that includes upwards of five first-year players, is well aware that the raucous crowds and intense environment will be new to most of his team.
“I don’t know if these freshmen are going to be ready for that,” he said. “They haven’t seen anything like it before.
“They’re excited though, I can tell.”
His players echo that sentiment .
“It’s the biggest tournament of the year to me,” Lady Trojans’ freshman starter McKenna Rushton said. “I really want to win it for the second year in a row, to build on the North Hall legacy.”
The Lanierland Tournament may no longer be the only time rivals like Gainesville and East Hall meet. And, while tradition rich, the tournament now might simply serve as a season preview.
However, this time each year those rivalries are renewed in the greatest of venues and in front of the largest crowds that will be seen this season.
“With all the excitement generated because of the tournament, I don’t see how people could say it’s any different than it used to be,” Davis said. “It’s been an attraction all these years and rivalries have been escalated through the years.
“The great thing is that the kids competing are friends off the court and this tournament gives them the ability to rib each other, it’s healthy competition.”