While sitting on the bench during his freshman year, East Hall’s Chaz Cheeks watched his Vikings blow an 11-point lead in a loss to Hart County that prevented the Vikings from making their sixth straight trip to Macon.
For three years, Cheeks and the rest of the seniors have longed for another chance to get back to the semifinals.
They now have their chance.
Riding a 12-game win streak, the Vikings (25-5, No. 1 Region 8-AA) play top-ranked Greater Atlanta Christian (25-5, No. 1 Region 6-AA) at 8:30 tonight in the final quarterfinal game at the Northwest Georgia Trade Center in Dalton. That game will be preceded by the Buford boys (22-8, No. 3 Region 6-AA) against South Atlanta (28-1, No. 2 Region 6-AA) at 5:30 p.m. and the Buford girls (26-3, No. 1 Region 6-AA) against Rabun County (27-3, No. 1 Region 8-AA) at 7 tonight.
Third-ranked East Hall is the lone boys team outside of Region 6-AA left in the northern portion of the bracket and the players want to keep that trend going.
“Last time we got this close, I was a freshman and didn’t contribute,” said Cheeks, one of four seniors on the East Hall roster. “It’s been so much better now as a senior, and going through the progress of getting back to where we used to be.”
There’s little doubt that the Vikings are back among the best teams in Class AA, but whether or not they can keep up with the elite team of the classification will be determined tonight.
“They’ve got a lot of skilled basketball players,” coach Joe Dix said. “They’re not the most athletic or the biggest team, but they have more basketball players than anyone we’ve played.”
No Spartan is more skilled than senior Malcolm Brogdon, a University of Virginia commit who, despite being hobbled by a thigh bruise, scored 25 points and pulled down 15 rebounds against Jordan in the second round.
“He’s a big-time player,” Dix said. “They list him as a guard, but he’s just a player.”
Containing Brogdon might be difficult considering East Hall also has to worry about 6-foot-6 sophomore A.J. Davis and 5-10 guard Paul Davis, who Dix calls “their version of Dre Perry.”
“He makes it all go,” Dix said of Davis.
Perry, a senior, isn’t concerned with guarding someone like Davis. In fact, he’s not concerned with any of the statistics or players his team will be up against tonight.
“It’s all mental,” said Perry, who scored a team-high 15 points against Manchester in Round 2. “Whoever is more mentally tough is going to win.”
To mentally prepare his team for tonight’s contest, Dix made sure to schedule several difficult challenges during the regular season. Along with playing nine teams from a higher classification, including Norcross, the Vikings played three out-of-state opponents in a tournament in South Carolina and the No. 2-team in Class A, Whitefield Academy.
“That’s why we did it, for this moment,” Dix said. “We could have done the schedule another way and had a better record, but we didn’t.”
GAC also scheduled some challenges, including Class AAAAA’s top-team, Milton, and eight out-of-state teams from places like California, New York and Oklahoma. The Spartans’ challenging schedule is courtesy of coach Eddie Martin, who won three straight Class AAAAA titles with Norcross prior to coming to GAC.
Winning titles is something Martin and Dix have in common, but East Hall’s coach jokingly hopes that tonight’s game won’t be decided by the suits on the sideline.
“I hope it doesn’t come down to that because I’ll get my head kicked in,” Dix said. “People always say he’s only good because he has talent, but you have to manage that talent.”
It’s the Vikings' job to shut down that talent, and they’re ready.
“There’s no doubters on this team,” senior Sterling Bailey said. “We have that mentality that we’re going to go out and beat the other team. That’s what it’s all about, having faith in yourself.”