Lakeview boys at Aquinas, 6 p.m.
Cedar Grove boys at Buford, 6 p.m.
North Hall boys at Morgan County, 7 p.m.
Mays boys at Gainesville, 7 p.m.
Earlier in the season, Lakeview Academy boys basketball coach Seth Vining said he wanted his final team, in his final season of coaching, to be defined by how it finished.
Thanks to a tough season schedule and a new postseason format in Class A, the Lions still have a chance to finish on a high note as they head back to the state tournament.
For a coach with four state championships under his belt, anything less would’ve been a disappointment.
“I told a radio station about a month ago that what I’ll remember about this year is how we finished,” Vining recalled. “So if I would have had to think about the last game being (Feb. 12), it wouldn’t have been a good finish.”
On that date Lakeview (18-7), slated as a Region 8-A title contender after finishing second in the tournament the year before, was upset by Hebron Christian 60-56 in the opening round of the region tournament. Any season prior to this, that would’ve been the final game.
Not this season.
Because, this season was the first in which the newly installed Class A power ratings system was used to determine the teams headed to the state tournament, 16 in the new private bracket and another 16 for the public school bracket.
Only the region champions were guaranteed spots, with the remaining entries being decided with the ratings system, which factored in strength of schedule and quality of teams beaten.
The Lions, who had only recently returned to full strength after a season filled with injuries, were 14th in the rankings heading into the tournament. The quick loss meant an agonizing period of waiting ensued where the players and coaches watched to see if any teams would surpass them.
None did, and Lakeview is the No. 14 seed in the 16-team bracket, matched up in the opening round against No. 3 Aquinas (21-6), the same team that defeated Lakeview 70-60 in the opening round last season. The Lions play at 6 tonight in Augusta.
In the final analysis, Vining said Lakeview’s wins over fellow state tournament teams Athens Christian and North Hall this season made the difference in the rating still being good enough to get in.
For Vining, the situation ended with a little irony.
“As much as I was unhappy with the new system, the system is what allows us to go to the state tournament,” he said. “So that’s kind of odd that that would happen.”
While the Lions didn’t know for sure that they’d made the state tournament until Wednesday, they prepared like they already had that assurance.
“We practiced like we were going to play,” Lakeview senior Trevor Price said.
Fellow senior Austin Montgomery, the team’s leading scorer, added that the following practices were the best they’d had all year. The quick exit in region play came with a positive note.
“That was definitely a wake-up call,” Price said. “We’re just relieved that we don’t have to go out like that.”
Not to mention, the Lions get at least one more game with Vining, who announced earlier in the season that he would retire at the end of the year.
The longtime Hall County high school basketball coach, who has compiled well over 700 wins in five decades coaching the East Hall girls, Johnson girls, East Hall boys and Lakeview boys, has turned the Gainesville private school into a consistent winner since he arrived for the 2004-2005 season. The Lions have reached the state tournament in eight of his nine seasons at the school.
“It’s been tough at times, but as far as someone who will have your back no matter what, there’s no better man for that,” Montgomery said. “He’s always pushing you to do your best.”
“It’s been an honor to be a part of this history,” Price added. “So many great players have played for him, so it’s an honor.”
Now the players will go out and try to extend Vining’s final season by defeating the same athletic, talented team, with the same two go-to scorers, that cut short the past Lakeview season. Starting tonight, the Lions get at least one more shot at giving one of Hall County’s best a much more proper send off.
While Vining’s expecting a better finish, whenever that may be, he’s already happy with his final team.
“I’m definitely pleased that we’re in the state tournament, because that’s always been a goal of mine as a coach,” he said. “And to survive all the things that happened this year and to survive the power rankings, it’s a great accomplishment for our program.”