In Thursday's print edition: A two-page special pullout section celebrating Lanierland's rich 50-year history. Only in print editions of The Times, available at retail outlets and news racks throughout Northeast Georgia. To have The Times delivered to your home, click here or call 770-532-2222.
This time of year has turned into the season for many wonderful things here in Hall County.
The weather has cooled, the decorations are up and the various holiday celebrations are set, but there are also championships to be won.
Tonight, with the start of the 50th annual Lanierland Basketball Tournament, begins a sports weekend in Hall County rarely ever rivaled.
Arguably the biggest high school football game in the history of the county will be played Friday night at City Park in Gainesville, but on the day before and the day after, area basketball teams will take to the court to begin the process of winning county bragging rights and a Lanierland title.
“(Lanierland) ranks right up there with winning region and getting to the final four,” East Hall coach Joe Dix said. “(Winning the tournament) is a goal every team has and one that we talk about a lot here at East Hall.”
The Vikings have won 23 tournament titles, but were beaten by North Hall in last year’s tournament and didn’t even make it to the championship game.
The 2008 tournament marked only the second time since 1966 that neither East Hall nor Gainesville was in the title game.
“Last year was my first Lanierland loss as head coach at East Hall,” Dix said. “So I took it hard. Our No. 1 goal right now is to win it and that starts with Chestatee on Saturday.”
The Vikings return four starters and eight lettermen from a team that not only suffered through ending a streak of six straight Lanierland titles, but had the program’s first losing season in recent memory.
“(Last year) was disappointing to the kids and trust me, they felt it and remember it,” Dix said. “These young men I’m coaching right now are hungry and hopefully the preparation we’re doing this week is enough.”
Dix went on to say that his team’s hunger is fed by this year’s returning starters and key players having never been a part of a Lanierland championship.
“We had such dynamic seniors the last time we won it (in 2007), so none of these guys have played a key role in a Lanierland title and want to,” he said.
That said “want to” might not be enough, however, as the boys field is as loaded as it’s been in years.
The Gainesville boys come in ranked No. 3 in the state while Flowery Branch is No. 6 and East Hall is No. 8.
Flowery Branch and Gainesville will play each other in the first round while East Hall will play Chestatee, all on Saturday.
“(Having ranked teams) makes it exciting and ratchets up the level of preparation you’ve got to have,” Dix said. “You know you’ve got to play well to continue on.
“For us coaches, it’s a little nauseating knowing that one win doesn’t mean anything because you’ve got to be just as on your game the next night with the type of talent that’s out there. But it makes for good viewing from a fan’s perspective.”
In what coach Warren Sellers deems his favorite moment in Lanierland’s storied history, his West Hall Spartans won the program’s first title with their victory over Johnson last year.
The Spartans will play Lakeview Academy in this year’s first round at 5:30 p.m. today while Johnson will play North Hall to round out tonight’s game at 8:30 p.m.
On the girls’ side, last year’s champions come in as this year’s favorites as the Gainesville girls are ranked No. 2 in the state behind a Carrollton team they beat 49-38 in their first game of the season.
The Lady Red Elephants should also come in hungry having dropped their last three games to Cleveland, Tenn., Uppermand, Tenn., and No. 7 Franklin County.
Gainesville will join its male counterparts by playing Flowery Branch at 7 p.m. Saturday. The East Hall and Chestatee girls will also play at 4 p.m. Saturday.
In tonight’s action, the West Hall Lady Spartans will play Lakeview at 4 p.m. and the North Hall Lady Trojans will play Johnson at 7 p.m.
All first round games will be played at Lakeview Academy with next weekend’s semifinals, finals and consolation rounds taking place at Flowery Branch High.