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Lanierland boys bracket loaded with talented teams, players
Local rivalries to be reignited at 58th annual Hall County tournament
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Chestatee's Donovan Hernandez (22) dribbles downcourt during the game between Johnson and Chestatee in Gainesville, on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. - photo by David Barnes
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The 58th annual Lanierland tournament begins Thursday at Lakeview Academy. - photo by For The Times

Among the East Hall High boys basketball team’s preseason goals are the usual benchmarks most squads aspire to.

Win a national tournament. Capture the region championship. Advance to the state semifinals.

But for the Vikings, along with every other Hall County school, their ambitions include one other lofty goal — securing the annual Lanierland tournament.

That’s far easier said than done, especially in this year’s boys bracket loaded with solid teams and talented players. From state title contenders like Gainesville to rapidly improving teams such as Flowery Branch, there’s plenty of intrigue heaped on the deep-seated rivalries that will be on display in the 58th installment of Georgia’s longest-running basketball tournament.

“There’s a great tradition between the schools,” East Hall coach Joe Dix said. “Then there’s the longevity of the tournament. … It has grown, and there have been some great, great games with some great teams involved that have created what we’ve got now.”

Lanierland begins Thursday at Lakeview Academy before shifting to Flowery Branch High for the semifinal and championship rounds over the next two days.

Flowery Branch opens the boys bracket against North Hall at 10:30 a.m., followed by Chestatee’s tilt with Lakeview Academy at 1:30 p.m. West Hall takes on East Hall at 4:30 p.m. before Gainesville seeks to defend its tournament title against Johnson at 7:30 p.m.

Middle Tennessee State commit KJ Buffen headlines a group of Division I prospects for the Red Elephants (3-6), who are currently ranked fifth in Class 6A by Score Atlanta. Most of last year’s Gainesville team that won its three Lanierland games by a combined 112 points is back, but Johnson (6-5) is keeping its focus elsewhere.

“I don’t put too much thought into who we’re playing,” Knights coach Tyler Whitlock said. “It’s about, ‘Are we getting better at the little details that are important to us?’ 

“They were a preseason No. 1. They’re a very good team and have a lot of experience back from last year, but we’re looking for us to compete and play within ourselves.”

The same is true for host Lakeview Academy (4-3), which has played fewer games than any other tournament participant and is still integrating new faces into its rotation. The Lions are looking to improve on last season’s third-place finish, which propelled them to their first-ever state semifinal appearance.

“(Lanierland) helps every team,” Lakeview Academy coach Todd Cottrell said. “It’s so competitive, there’s a great atmosphere and you’ve got to play three in a row. It really prepares you for those kind of environments that you’ll see in your region schedule and when you get into the region tournament.”

They’ll face a senior-laden Chestatee (4-8) squad that has gotten production early in the year from guards Cameron Gwyn, Cooper Wilson and Donovan Hernandez.

North Hall, however, might be the youngest team in the tournament field. The Trojans (4-6) have eight sophomores on the roster but are eyeing a similar Lanierland outing from a year ago, when they narrowly missing going to the championship game.

Standing in their way is Flowery Branch (6-3), which took Class 5A’s second-ranked Buford down to the closing seconds in its most recent region game. Senior Justin Quick is among the best scorers in Hall County but should have his hands full with North Hall’s full-court press.

Then there’s East Hall (4-5), which has been on the losing end of the last two Lanierland championship games after winning all but one title from 1994-2007.

Dix, now in his 14th year with the school, knows what it takes to engineer a championship run, starting against an improved West Hall (5-7) team that has almost matched its win total from last season.

“You need to be efficient in winning games because of the three-day situation,” Dix said. “That’s the biggest thing. After that, you need to handle late-game situations. Almost always there is at least one game that comes down to the wire.”

The only question is which game — or games — will turn out that way. But with all of Hall County’s boys basketball talent gathered for a three-day spectacle, there’s sure to be a handful of amazing plays and heart-stopping contests between the area teams.

And they’re all in pursuit of the same thing.

“(Winning Lanierland) is up there with our other goals,” Dix said. “ … We’ve been in the championship game the last two years but haven’t gotten it done. Hopefully our kids are hungry.”

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