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March to Macon: North Hall boys embrace opportunity
North Hall’s Hamilton Harper reaches to swat the ball from Riverwood’s Robert Hickey during the Trojans’ playoff win over Riverwood last Saturday in Dalton.

It would be hard to convince Chris Barnes that this week is just like any other.

Barnes, a junior shooting guard on the North Hall boys basketball team, started Wednesday’s practice time after school by sitting in a rolling chair with a sharpie marker in hand for signing autographs, and not dribbling a basketball out on the gym floor.

The team was preparing for pep rally stops this morning at North Hall Middle and its three feeder elementary schools, before heading to middle Georgia for Friday’s Class AAA state semifinal game against LaGrange (30-0) at the Macon Centreplex.

When it was all said and done, the players and coaches with the Trojans (27-3) signed more than 150 miniature basketballs and about 85 T-shirts to give out to the younger fans that look up to the high school players like idols with their success this season.

“It makes you feel kind of like a rock star,” Barnes said. “It’ll be fun to throw out all the balls to the kids.”

While North Hall’s boys put the finishing touches on preparing for the program’s first trip to the state semifinals, they were also mindful not to let the weekend pass by without having some fun along the way.

The pep rallies, long bus ride with the team, huge crowds at the Centreplex that seats close to 10,000 fans, and taking to the floor will be memories that will stay with these high school players for the remainder of their lives.

“It’s 32 minutes for the rest of their lives,” Trojans coach Benjie Wood said. “You only get the opportunity to play high school sports once.

“The older you get, the more it means to you.”

Wood also wants to use his past experience leading a team to the state semifinals and playing on such a pressure-packed stage to serve as a source of reference for his team. He guided the Johnson girls to the state semifinals in 2005 and 2006.

Even though the Lady Knights didn’t win in Macon under Wood, he says that experience playing in the final four is still a fond topic of conversation and bonding experience that is still with those players when they come together today.

“Making it to the final four is something that you have to be able to enjoy,” Wood said. “It’s something to cherish because it’s an unbelievable experience.

“There’s a lot of players and coaches that never get an opportunity like this.”

“We have all the trust in the world in coach Wood,” Barnes said. “He’s by far the best coach in the state, and he’ll have us ready to do what we need to do.”

With previous experience and perspective, it may be easier for the Trojans’ coach to be able to look at the weekend ahead from a different angle.

Right now, it’s hard enough for the players just to get a good night’s rest with so many thoughts and state title dreams running through their heads. Most of the North Hall players haven’t even been a part of the crowd in Macon to understand what the final four atmosphere is all about.

Then the players stop and think about the amount of fans that will be making the trek to do their part. Wood said the school’s students are so excited about this game that they are having a practice session to get their cheers in line.

Players are also anticipating a final practice this afternoon at a site along the route to Macon. All kinds of emotions will be racing through their heads as they try to keep focused with what they’re supposed to do on the court.

“Yeah, it has been pretty hard to sleep this week,” North Hall senior Robby Hill said. “I am pretty tired right now.”

North Hall’s opponent in the semifinals, LaGrange, is good. Everyone knows that. The top-ranked Grangers haven’t lost all season.

Still, the Trojans don’t seem to mind the challenge. They’re going to the state championship weekend with an all-or-nothing type mentality.

“It will be a disappointment if we don’t win the state title,” Hill said. “Coach Wood has told us that we’re the best boys team that he’s coached, and we know we can win the state title.”

This weekend marks the last of four distinct goals that the Trojans established well before the season opened. The other three have already been accomplished: North Hall won the Lanierland, set a new school-record in wins (the old record was 21), and won the Region 7-AAA title.

All along the way, Wood has insisted the players find the perfect balance between the pursuit of perfection and having fun playing the game.

“I expect the kids give it their all, but it’s not worth it if you’re not having fun playing the game,” Wood said.

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