A little over an hour south of Atlanta sits a venue, visible from I-75, known as the Macon Coliseum.
If the facility’s walls could talk, the tales would be of triumph and lost opportunities, heroes and spoilers, fulfilled dreams and unmet expectations.
It’s in the Macon Coliseum that high school basketball state titles are battled for, won and lost.
Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Seth Vining’s Lady Vikings and Jerry Davis’ Red Elephants were both winning back-to-back state titles, Hall County schools have been a virtual mainstay come March in Macon.
For the better part of the last 15 years, whether it was the Johnson girls under Benji Wood, the East Hall boys under Seth Vining or the West Hall girls under Steve Sweat, teams from Hall County have made the trip down I-75.
So, what does it take to get to Macon and what will it take to get back this year? Is it based solely on talent, or does luck play a part?
For some Hall County teams, the dream of playing in the state semifinals or finals is still a distant one.
For others, however, others whose predecessors’ shoes recently squeaked on the Macon Coliseum floor, the dream is an expectation.
Been there, done that
For the East Hall boys and Gainesville girls basketball programs, the goal of a trip to Macon is an annual reality based in recent tradition.
The Vikings made their last state finals appearance in 2007, marking the eighth trip in nine years. For the Lady Red Elephants four straight trips to Macon culminated with a state title in 2004.
“The success of past teams does have an effect on these young men,” East Hall coach Joe Dix said of his 2008-09 team, which returns only one starter. “They know they’ve got a tradition to uphold.”
As Dix did when he took over for Seth Vining, who had not only led the Vikings to multiple state semifinals appearances, but also did the same for the Lady Vikings.
“We make sure we show them tape,” Dix said. “We’re watching film now and we’re going to watch every state championship game we’ve played in so they can see the level of play it takes to get there.”
For Hill, whose Gainesville girls program has been to the state semifinals six times and won four state titles, “The skill in a program is having structure and tradition.
“It’s also important to have athletes that have vision of wanting to play in those big games.”
That vision is enhanced by Hill, who makes sure former players play a big role in his program. For example, former Gainesville point guard and Miss Georgia Basketball Mahogany Hudson, who led Gainesville to its first two Macon appearances and first state title, is an assistant coach.
Hill admits that this year’s team, led by 2008 Times Girls Player of the Year Jaymee Carnes (19 points per game, 9 rebounds per game in 2007), has a chance to make it to Macon.The reason, however, isn’t just Carnes.
For both Hill and Dix, the key to making it to Macon is the support system.
“You’ve got to have that player,” Dix said. “But you also have to have a good mix of complimentary guys who are willing to make the small plays.
“The x-factor is the kids willing to lay down the glamor part of it and make the little plays.”
Throw in solid rebounding, good guard play, team chemistry and widespread flu not hitting at the wrong time and, according to Dix and Hill, a trip to Macon is on the horizon.
“These are the same things we tell our kids,” Dix said. “We talk about it. It’s a realistic goal each year and we have to think like that or it will no longer be.”
Old success, new places
When a coach who has had success in getting teams to Macon switches schools do the expectations follow?
Wood, Vining and Lakeview girls coach Buster Brown would know something about that.
Wood coached the Johnson girls to back-to-back trips to Macon before taking the North Hall boys job, and Brown had success at Holy Innocents’ before coaching the Lady Lions to the first state semifinals appearance in program history.
“It takes time, effort and community more than anything else,” Brown said. “And it isn’t just the kids either.
“Fortunately for us, we had that a few years ago here.”
Vining, who coached Lakeview to a region title last year and has three starters returning, has the same belief system as his former assistant Dix.
If you don’t believe it, it won’t come.
“I think (a trip to Macon) could happen here,” Vining said. “I think if you don’t start thinking about going to state and to the final four and start believing you can do it, you probably won’t get there.”
Vining said that getting to Macon the first time is the hardest, but the appearance itself might be the easiest.
According to Vining, the first time he took the Lady Vikings to the state semifinals the team didn’t quite understand the magnitude of the accomplishment and, therefore, wasn’t nervous.
“Those girls were just happy to get to go spend the night in a motel,” he said.
So for Vining, arguably the most decorated basketball coach in Hall County history, what will it take to get to Macon?
“You have to be good first and foremost and then get a break here or there and maybe have a little luck.
“Sometimes it’s a special player who can carry you,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a special senior class that just refuses to lose. There are so many variables.”
For Brown, the state semifinals trip gave way to other state tournament appearances, but not yet a return to Macon.
“I think it could happen here again,” Brown said. “But it’s down the road.”
Getting back and getting there
Just because a coach hasn’t yet led their Hall County team to Macon, doesn’t mean they don’t know what it takes to get there, nor does it mean they haven’t thought about it.
In the thought process of each coach are the intangibles. Whether it be great guard play to thwart the ever-present press, a balanced scoring attack, limiting turnovers while being in a position to score on each possession, solid defense or team chemistry and leadership; each coach has their own intangibles that will lead the way to Macon.
But what about the big picture, not just achieving success, but sustaining it?
For Chestatee coaches Russ Triaga and Web Daniel it’s about balance, player development and living in the present.
“In 2000 our Berkmar team won state because we had five guys averaging double figures,” Triaga said.
“The last two years we played in the state tournament basically counting on one person to do nearly half our scoring.
“If you have balance, you have opportunity everywhere. If you don’t have balance you have a smaller margin for error.”
“Sometimes I think if you look too much towards the future, with the thought that you’ll get there when, your current teams will give up on the current season,” Daniel said.
For West Hall coaches Lynn Jarrett and Warren Sellers, setting realistic goals of making the state playoffs comes first and then who knows what can happen from there.
“We tell the girls, ‘Hey, you make state anything can happen,’ because it gets down to luck and the pressure’s on everybody else and all you gotta do is make a couple of shots here and there,” Jarrett said.
And for first-year Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell, future success means learning from the past.
“We’re sold on trying to embrace those Gainesville traditions,” said Cottrell. “We want to make sure our guys understand what it means to play here and are understanding of the great players that came before them.”
For second-year East Hall girls coach Joey Rider, whose Lady Vikings won a state title the year before his arrival, it’s about taking those girls who saw those before them win and building on that.
“What’s important is what they saw when they were in the seventh and eighth grade and elementary school,” Rider said. “Did they see the girls before them win? If so, it means they expect to win when they get there.
“Tradition sets expectations and you achieve what you expect.”