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Realignment adds intrigue for area basketball teams
Johnson boys, Chestatee girls face stiff competition in region title races
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Realignment has made for some intriguing region title races for the 2014-15 basketball season.
 
In Region 8-AAAA especially, the competition should be fierce. The Johnson boys and Chestatee girls are the defending region champions, but both face an infusion of top-level contenders.
 
The Buford boys were 7-AAA champs last season, and the Buford and North Hall girls were the top two 7-AAA teams in the 2013-14 regular season. All three of those programs are now a part of Region 8-AAAA.
 
Johnson boys coach Jeff Steele, in his 17th season, knows it won’t be an easy road as the Knights go for their third consecutive region title. His program won the Lanierland Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 while going 24-6 a season ago.
 
Steele has two of the top players in the area in senior guard Ty Cockfield and senior forward Roderick English, but Steele said the progress of the rest of his team is what will make Johnson dangerous. He’s optimistic about Daemonte Nicholson’s ability to orchestrate things from the point guard position.
 
“All these pistons firing together is what we’re looking for,” Steele said.
 
Chestatee’s girls are off to an 0-3 start, but the games have come against Class AAAAAA teams Collins Hill (49-34) and Peachtree Ridge (52-47) and Class AAAAA’s River Ridge (50-45). That demanding slate is no accident. Lady War Eagles coach Web Daniel said Buford, the AAA runner-up in 2014, has AAAAAA talent and his team needs to be prepared for that level of opposition.
 
“We’ve been battle tested early,” Daniel said.
 
Daniel sees North Oconee and North Hall as other dangerous teams in addition to Buford. He said the region has strong coaches from top to bottom, making every night a tall test.
 
Buford girls coach Gene Durden is looking forward to facing some new teams while also maintaining rivalries with North Hall and White County. Durden said the Lady Wolves are excited about trying to show once again they can be a state contender in a higher classification.
 
“We’re going to have to go in there, play good basketball and prove that we’re a team to be reckoned with,” Durden said. “We look forward to that challenge.”
 
The East Hall boys stand to benefit most from the departure of Buford from Region 7-AAA. Led by 6-foot-3 senior forward Kyvon Davenport, the Vikings will look to build on their second-place 7-AAA finish, 12-4 region mark and Sweet 16 appearance from a year ago.
 
“It looks good on paper, but obviously you’ve got to play,” East Hall boys coach Joe Dix said. “And we’ve still got to get a whole lot better. We play a tough schedule, and hopefully that’s going to make us better.”
 
Dix said Banks County and Dawson County should be among the contenders in 7-AAA this season, but he said multiple schools in the region have tough home courts. Though the coach knows improvement is a must, he doesn’t shy away from high expectations.
 
“I don’t mind being the favorite, being highly thought of,” Dix said. “We talk openly about trying to be the best.”
 
Davenport said East Hall’s goal is to win region and that the Vikings are more mature than a season ago. The senior also said East Hall’s added size should make its zone pressure more effective.
 
In Region 8-AAAAA, the Gainesville boys will look to make a leap from 16-13 overall and 8-8 in region in coach Benjie Wood’s second season. A bevy of returning experience and the addition of Buford transfer D’Marcus Simonds, a junior shooting guard and Mississippi State commitment, are among the reasons for optimism surrounding the Red Elephants. The 6-foot-4 Simonds averaged 22 points, 12 rebounds and 5.7 assists in leading Buford to the Class AAA state finals in 2014.
 
But Wood said Heritage (Conyers) and Apalachee are both top-10 teams, with Salem also a strong threat. He said his team won’t get caught up in anything outside of the building, including focusing on other teams or expectations.
 
“We’re worried about controlling the things we can control,” Wood said. “And that’s effort and attitude.”
 
The East Hall girls will aim to build off their late-season surge that earned a playoff berth as they reached the Sweet 16 in AAA. Second-year coach Justin Wheeler said his group is cohesive and athletic with strong shooters. He is excited about realignment.
 
“It’s just a new challenge,” Wheeler said. “We look forward to competing against new teams.”
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