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Prep basketball: Teams using summer to prepare for season
First-year Gainesville High boys basketball coach Todd Cottrell, left, talks with assistant coach Scott Givens during the Red Elephants practice on Wednesday at Gainesville High. Cottrell was the head coach of the Region 7-AAA champion Flowery Branch Falcons last season. - photo by SARA GUEVARA | The Times

The hot air hits four steps before crossing the threshold of the gym; the squeak of shoes and hollering of instructions can be heard well before that.

The locales that thaw prep basketball fans in the cold winter months are transformed to saunas in May, saunas that reek with the smell of hard work.

Most high school students equate the word summer with the word break, but for prep basketball players, the start of summer means the beginning of the next season.

For five area high schools, it also means the beginning of a new era.

The Flowery Branch boys and girls programs along with the North Hall girls, Johnson girls and Gainesville boys programs all have new coaches.

That translates into new systems to implement and, for most, a new mentality.

“We need to improve,” first-year Lady Falcons head coach Hazel Hall said. “We need to get better and we need to work harder, and those are my two biggest things for the summer.

“I sat around for several hours with my seniors and assistant coaches and talked about expectations on both ends. Luckily, I’ve got a great group of seniors coming back, and they’re just great people, and they are excited to get started again”

For the Lady Trojans, the new mentality comes in the form of learning not to be reliant.

“Summer is the most important time, and the things we’re going to do are going to build a lot of team and family relationships,” first-year head coach Bryan Richerson said. “And that’s what we have to do because we have to be a team more than ever before because we can no longer depend on Letietia (Davenport) and Elizabeth (Williams) to take over a game.”

For first-year Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell and first-year Flowery Branch coach Duke Mullis, however, installing a new regime isn’t as important as building on the existing foundation.

“I think when a program has not been successful it’s easy,” said Mullis, who started programs at Chattahoochee High and West Forsyth High before taking the Falcons’ job. “I have a history of building programs instead of continuing a program that’s been successful. So this is a whole new challenge for me to come into a team that was a region champion last year with a 26-4 record.

“I love the challenge and want to see what I can do with it.”

Cottrell knows all about taking over a good team with a strong tradition.

“With coach (Jerry) Davis having been here, these guys know how to play,” the former Flowery Branch coach said. “I think some things are just a little different, but a lot of things are really similar.
“The program is in great shape, and the kids know how to play, and they’re excited about playing.”

Regardless of the state of their respective unions, the focus of each coach is the fundamentals of the game of basketball and creating an atmosphere that fosters personal growth and familial relationships.

“I think that games are won or lost in the offseason based on who’s outworking who,” Mullis said. “I don’t want us just to play during the summer. I mean, playing is great because it develops your timing, instinct and decision making, but you’ve got to take the time to work on certain fundamentals, foot work and skills.”

"This time of year everyone is excited because we haven’t had to make any cuts and we haven’t lost any games,” Cottrell said.

“But I think the summer should be spent teaching them the drills so that in the season you can teach them what the drills are for.”

The Flowery Branch girls will spend the month of June practicing and playing. They are going to three different team camps this summer including one at Berry College in Rome. The North Hall girls are doing speed and agility drills for an hour prior to their two-hour practices each day and also will be attending team camps at the University of Tennessee, North Georgia and playing games at Jefferson and North Forsyth high schools. The Lady Trojans are essentially playing a full regular season schedule plus some this summer.

“It’s exciting, and I know there will be some frustrations along the way,” said Richerson, who has spent the past two years as an assistant coach with the North Hall boys program. “It’s an exciting time for me. This is the time for me to teach the game of basketball, and when we get on the court and play in the games it’s (the girls’) time to play and show what they can do.”

As for the Flowery Branch and Gainesville boys, Mullis isn’t a huge fan of practicing during the summer months because, “It’s mutual, neither the players or the coaches want to be there,” but both will play in summer leagues.

Basketball aside, both Mullis and Cottrell also are working diligently to ensure that their players comprehend the value of understanding the personalities of both their coaches and teammates.

“I think the summer months are for them getting to know me on a personal level and them getting to know my system,” Mullis said.

“Them getting familiar with me and us building some chemistry on a social level. Coaches are different in their philosophies and terminologies, and I think it’s important for me to first get the seniors to buy into what we’re doing and, honestly, they’ve been great so far.”

Added Cottrell: “The biggest thing for us is getting to know each other and building the kind of relationships where they know what we’re asking them to do. They seem like great kids, and they’re working really hard.”

While working hard in the summer, and in turn creating chemistry, is a must for coaches and teams hoping to be successful in the upcoming season, each of the new head coaches realizes that summer is also a time for relaxation.

“Kids are going to be kids,” said Hall, who has coached in Dade County and Oconee County. “They need their time away to do other things, and I want that time also. I’ve got two little nieces that are 6 and 5 that I love to spend time with, and that’s what I want to do.

“So, like I said, we are going to take the month of June and when June’s over I won’t see them in July.”

Added Cottrell: “I think there’s a delicate line (between working and over-working prep athletes in the summer) especially with guys who play multiple sports because we’re asking them to do a lot and other coaches are asking them to do a lot.

“And if we’re not careful as coaches, we’re going to spread them too thin. We want kids playing different sports, but this time of year is preparing us for October.”