GAINESVILLE — East Hall’s senior class is quite comfortable in its own skin.
These seven players that are the catalyst behind the Vikings (24-6) are not hampered by the characterization that they are not as talented as all the other tremendously successful senior classes in recent years at Valhalla.
They heard the doom-and-gloom predictions — people said they didn’t stand a chance of making the program’s sixth straight trip to the state semifinals in Macon. Without a dominating superstar player, some of these seniors even heard the naysayers claim that the Vikings would not be able to compete in Region 7-AAA and into the playoffs.
East Hall’s region title loss to Flowery Branch only helped add some fuel to that fire.
"Everyone thought we would be down this season," senior Josh Chapman said.
But the Vikings’ seniors have made a very clear statement in the past eight days: they don’t have any intentions to finish their playing careers with a sour taste in their mouths.
"We have a mindset to win," senior guard Trevor Bishop said. "Our senior class is confident we can win.
"There is nothing worse than losing that last game."
East Hall needs a win today against Hart County (22-5) in the Class AAA state quarterfinals to become the third consecutive senior class at the school to play in the state semifinals all four years in high school.
Tip-off is set for 5:30 p.m. at Mount Zion High School in Jonesboro.
History is on the Vikings’ side at this point. East Hall boasts a 28-1 record in the first three rounds of the playoffs dating back to 1998 (only loss in that time frame was a quarterfinal loss to Calhoun in 2002), according to East Hall basketball historian Ray Adamson.
Win or lose today, the stamp on East Hall’s senior class is already secured. They know how to win the close games.
Since the playoffs began, the Vikings upset nationally ranked South Atlanta by three points in the first round and then held off Cartersville for a two-point win in the second round.
"Those close games really makes for exciting basketball," East Hall coach Joe Dix said. "It just shows that there is no quit in this program."
Last season’s experience of losing a nail-biter in the state title game to Jordan also made this year’s senior class at East Hall more determined.
"We’re out to prove that we’re one of the best schools without having to recruit from other schools," senior forward Tracey Gardner said. "We’re all homegrown
The level of talent from East Hall’s seniors is undeniable. According to Dix, as many of five of these players may end up playing basketball on the college level next season. Two of the Vikings’ seniors (Ken Wise and Gardner) are going to have to choose between baseball and basketball.
Another area for success for East Hall’s seniors is in the classroom, with three players carrying a 4.0 grade point average. Trevor Bishop and Gardner are part of the school’s National Arts Honor Society. Gardner is also a member of the school’s academic team.
"This group of seniors is well-rounded," Dix said. "This isn’t just a group of jocks that hang around the basketball court — they are all involved in different clubs and activities on campus."
The Vikings’ senior class is relatively large in terms of numbers with Wise, Bishop, Kasey Rylee, Gardner, Chapman, Dedric Ware and Patrick Hoggard. The added depth of this group gives Dix more experience with starters and the added bonus of more fresh legs off the bench.
This season, East Hall has 10 different players that have scored in double figures in a game. Wise, Bishop, Gardner and Chapman grew up with the program since their freshman season in 2005 when the Vikings won their last state title in Class AA.
But Hoggard, Ware and Rylee took varied paths to becoming valuable parts of this program.
As an undersized middle schooler, Hoggard was cut in the seventh and eighth grades from the middle school team, before coming back out for the team in high school and developing into East Hall’s biggest player at 6-foot-8.
"He just sprouted like a weed," Dix said.
Ware was ruled academically ineligible as a freshman. According to Dix, Ware got his priorities in order and started seeing playing time on varsity toward the end of his sophomore season.
Rylee decided to leave the team as recently as the start of his junior season. He decided to rejoin the program before the 2007 season began, and has been a "key player off the bench," Dix says.
Such different roads to earning playing time makes for an appreciation of the different roles they play on the court. The Vikings have a make-shift star player, a floor general, a couple of big bodies and a player or two that are willing to draw a foul or take a charge for the benefit of the team.
"We’re a very interesting group of seniors," Chapman said. "I know my job is to go out there and do the dirty work whether it is dive for the ball or take a charge.
"But it gets me playing time."
And playing for a tradition-rich progam like East Hall has given this senior class the opportunity to play in the playoffs and in elite tournaments in places such as Macon, Tampa and Charleston, among others.
"We’re all family together," Bishop said.