At East Hall, athletics director Adam Rich is enthused by the direction of its sports programs.
That energy runs much deeper than the 2021 boys soccer program and its run to the Class 4A state championship match, but it was certainly a thrill to see the soccer program finish state runner-up in Class 4A — one of the toughest in the state.
Along with many of the other schools in the Hall County Schools system, East Hall will have a ‘durable’ new playing field, and concession stand area that are currently under construction, which comes as a benefit of a recent SPLOST vote.
These are silver linings because things were often frustrating trying to orchestrate high school athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020-21, East Hall had two football games cancelled, due to the nation’s pandemic, and had to shuffle some basketball games around for myriad of reasons.
However, now most people have taken the vaccine shots and county athletics director Stan Lewis has promised a return to full capacity for all county schools outdoors sporting events next year.
“Overall, we’re doing well with our sports programs here at East Hall,” Rich said. “We’re growing in a lot of sports and definitely the peak was the boys soccer program making the state finals.”
Talent is strong across the board for the Vikings, Rich said, and it hopefully mesh well with a coaching staff that has experienced significant turnover.
In 2020-21, East Hall had five new coaches, each diligently laying the groundwork for future success at Valhalla.
This coming season, the Vikings will have three new coaches, including Matt Turner, who takes over as head football coach, and Chris Henry, who is now in charge of the boys soccer program.
An East Hall High graduate, Turner takes the helm after former coach Michael Perry took the same position at Union County High. Henry, who was on staff for five seasons with the wildly-successful Johnson boys soccer program, takes over for Mark Wade who is going to teach at Union County.
This seems like a lot of new coaches, but pales in comparison to the heavily-impacted past season that had beau coup coronavirus restrictions and precautions in place and five new coaches at East Hall: Zeb Lackey (baseball), Tommy Yancey (boys basketball), Tim Lasseter (girls golf) Sita Preston (girls soccer) and Jill Ayers (boys and girls tennis).
While likely exhausting for Rich and his principal Jeff Cooper to fill so many holes in leadership positions in sports, Rich said they feel confident that the right men and women are in place to build sustained success.
Turnover, Rich said, was particularly overwhelming in boys basketball (four coaches in five seasons), and soccer and volleyball with three new coaches in five years.
“The nice thing is I had a hand in hiring all these coaches and put my stamp on them and got the final approval from Mr. Cooper,” Rich said. “The coaches we have know what we’ve trying to achieve and know my expectations for our sports programs.”
One new coach that has Rich particularly excited is bringing back Turner, who has taught at East Hall since 2009 and served as one of its assistant coaches from 2009-2017.
Turner was offensive coordinator in 2020 at Lakeview Academy.
Turner will have the benefit of working with senior quarterback Clete Cooper, who threw for more than 2,000 yards in East Hall’s eight games in 2020.
Equally impressive, Rich said, is Cooper’s level of commitment to his teammates and not just his own personal success.
“Clete is a great athlete, great kid,” Rich said. “Our offense is going to be exciting to watch and we’re going to score a lot of points.”
And any conversation about athletics at East Hall has to involve a heavy dose of basketball banter. The Vikings boys have three state titles and girls have won a championship once this century.
However, basketball fandom and talent are something that go hand in hand at Valhalla.
Rich feels optimistic about the progress both are making for the coming season, after both missed the playoffs in 2021.
The East Hall girls finished 15-10 last season and will return a veteran squad, expected to have a pair of four-year starter seniors (Audrey Griffin and Alexis Burce) and three-year starter juniors (Callie Dale and Maleah Harrison).
For the East Hall boys basketball program, Rich was pleased with the job Yancey did, given the forces at play. His hiring in 2020 came right about the time of the lockdown and the first season of summer practice was significantly compromised.
With Yancey in charge, East Hall’s boys will run a ‘flex’ system, which puts an emphasis on having success in the half-court offense.
This summer, he’s seen a big jump in the boys basketball program by winning 6 of 9 summer-league games, as of June 18, Rich said.
Some player to watch for the East Hall boys are Darius Holcomb, Cletus Agborsangaya and Cooper, among others.
Softball will also be a bright spot for the Lady Vikings. After a dropoff in 2020, Rich is expecting their squad to be more like the team in 2019 that went 26-8 and made the state tournament in Columbus.
This season, the Lady Vikings will rely on Callie Hardison and Burce, both returning starters, and incoming freshman pitcher Amari Burce.
East Hall’s athletics director also expects its volleyball program to make a step up, noting they have 60 players in its teams. Some of the notable talent in 2021 will be Lovely Thomas, Bridget Perez, Anslee Banks, Cheyenne Smith and Jacklyn Roland.
In wrestling, Rich said, the Vikings return three qualifiers to the traditional state meet from last season (Justin Gilbert, Caleb Pruitt and Cody Lee).
Clearly, the highlight last season was when East Hall’s boys claimed a region championship, won four home playoff matches and came up short against Southeast Whitfield in the title match.
The Vikings emerged from one of the most challenging regions in the state and were one of two Hall County programs to play for a state championship.
“That was an awesome experience watching those guys playing soccer,” Rich said. “They were so much fun to watch. I think next season will be a growing experience, but we’ll still be competitive in boys soccer.”