Amid summer workouts and offseason conditioning, Flowery Branch coach Courtney Newton asked her players to set their own goals for the 2015-16 season.
The first was for the second-ranked Lady Falcons to win the Lanierland tournament. The second was to become region champions.
Flowery Branch (15-0) romped to its first Lanierland championship since 2003 last week under first-year coach Newton, and will now turn the page to a taxing Region 8-AAAAA schedule that includes tests against high-scoring Winder-Barrow (10-1) and perennial rival Gainesville (8-3).
The Lady Falcons travel to face Apalachee in Winder at 6 p.m. today.
“At the beginning, it’s about the approach you take, that we’re all in,” said Newton. “We’re committed to each other and the team. If you do that, it’ll happen. They’ve embraced it: It’s not about the last name, it’s about the team.”
Flowery Branch breezed through its Lanierland opponents, winning by an average of 26 points per game, including a 72-49 handling of East Hall in Wednesday’s title matchup.
The Lady Falcons will likely face tougher tests in 8-AAAAA: They have a home-and-home against the Lady Red Elephants, who picked up three wins out of four games against Flowery Branch in 2014-15.
Newton is still waiting to bring back senior Breanna Locke, who was out for the majority of Lanierland with an injury. In her absence, sophomore Taniyah Worth and junior Julianne Sutton thrived as threats in the paint. Worth was named as the tournament MVP after averaging 15 points per game in the semifinals and final.
Newton said the team isn’t concerned about who gets the start once Locke returns to health.
“That’s something we’ll cross when we get there. There are a lot of kids who, on paper, deserve a start. But kids don’t worry about being a starter or not, they just want to win games and have fun with their teammates. No matter what five are starting the game, we’ll play the type of basketball we want to play.”
Meanwhile, talented sophomore Lexie Sengkhamee has shown promise at the point guard position since she took over the position over the summer. Her calm ball-handling skills helped limit turnovers when East Hall went on a small run toward the end of the fourth quarter.
Newton, who took over last year from veteran coach Hazel Hall, said her team is based on balance. So far this season, the Lady Falcons have had seven different scoring leaders throughout their 15 wins.
“They’re fighting for something,” said Newton. “They know they have to continue to fight for what we want to accomplish.”
GAINESVILLE BOYS BACK IN ACTION: The Red Elephants tackle Lanier Tuesday night in their first game since the team was handed a two-game suspension last month following an altercation at a holiday tournament.
Gainesville (6-1) did not take part in last week’s Lanierland tournament after members of the Red Elephants and a team from Miami Senior (Fla.) reportedly engaged in a fight during the Forcht Bank King of the Bluegrass Holiday Classic in Fairdale, Ky. Both teams were sent home and the game was called in the first quarter, according to The Courier-Journal of Louisville.
“We’re just going to take care of us and focus on what we do,” said Gainesville coach Benjie Wood. “We’ll concentrate on what we can control.”
Wood said he’s likely to start Georgia State commit D’Marcus Simonds against the visiting Longhorns, along with Bailey Minor, KJ Buffen, Tae Turner and Messiah Dorsey.
The possibility of rust is “always a concern,” according to Wood, but the coach said his team is anxious to get back on the floor.
“There’s nothing we can do about it other than get out there and play,” he said.
‘NO REGION SECRETS’ FOR NORTH HALL BOYS: The Trojans have proven they can make life difficult for any opponent on their schedule.
Problem is, their competition is just as tough. North Hall (8-4) secured third-place in the Lanierland tournament, despite falling to eventual finalists East Hall in double overtime of the second round.
Following Tuesday’s non-region game at Johnson, the Trojans will kick off their Region 8-AAAA schedule against Monroe Area (8-5) on Friday. Led by coach Tyler Sanders, North Hall has already turned the page from Lanierland, picking up a close 51-49 win over Lakeview Academy on Saturday.
“There are no bad teams in our region,” said Sanders. “All nine teams can beat each other. I had a conversation with the boys before practice about how, mentally, we have to be locked in.”
Sanders said he’ll rely on his team to peak at the right time for the region playoffs and stay consistent. He said the Trojans are playing one of the most difficult non-region schedules the team has had since he’s been at the school.
North Hall scored 73 points in each of its two Lanierland tournament games, which are season-high records. The Trojans have nine seniors on their 14-player roster.
“I feel like we’re disciplined enough and have enough experience that we can adjust the game plan as we need it.”
LUMPKIN COUNTY BOYS LEANING ON EXPERIENCE: Jeff Steele doesn’t tolerate taking a game off.
That’s why he’s hoping that the Indians will pay close attention to his counsel as they enter the thick of the Region 7-AAA slate, where they will take on foes such as Banks County (12-2) and East Hall (9-4).
Lumpkin County (12-3) recently won the Battle of the States tournament, with victories over teams from Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee, but fell to White County by double digits on Saturday.
The Indians host Dawson County at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Steele won back-to-back Lanierland tournaments during his time at Johnson High, and recently led the Knights to a 30-1 record and a state quarterfinal appearance before leaving to take over in Dahlonega.
“Hopefully they’ll lean on my experience,” he said. “I’m trying to get these guys to learn how to win on a consistent basis, to learn what it takes to win consistently. We stress the region games, we stress every game with these guys.”
Steele confessed to being frustrated that his team gave up a third quarter lead, citing low energy and effort. He’ll look for more against the Tigers, who are winless in 7-AAA so far this season.
“I get upset when everyone doesn’t have a great attitude, give a good effort, and for the most part, we’ve gotten that really consistently until Saturday night,” said Steele. “Hopefully that’s all it was. We just need to learn how to win.”
EAST HALL GIRLS BACK TO ‘NITTY-GRITTY’: Lady Vikings coach Justin Wheeler said he is hoping to “stay true” to his program’s philosophy in rebounding from last week’s rough Lanierland title game loss to Flowery Branch.
The Lady Vikings fell 72-49 to the Lady Falcons to finish tournament runners-up, but will look to bounce back on the road in a region matchup Tuesday against Fannin County in Blue Ridge.
“We’ve got to stay true to what we do as a team and as a ball club,” said Wheeler. “When things go south, you’ve got to get back to the basics and what we do well. When things go good, you’ve got to stay grounded and keep building.”
Wheeler said his players were disappointed in falling to Flowery Branch after picking up hard-fought tournament wins over Gainesville and Chestatee.
The focus now, he said, will be making sure East Hall peaks near February, where the Lady Vikings will look to compete for a region title.
East Hall has a home-and-home against Gainesville coming later this month between a visit to undefeated Dawson County (14-0) on Jan. 15. The Lady Tigers topped the Lady Vikings in the game at East Hall 62-55 in double overtime last month.