No one knows quite how transformative a successful weekend at Hall County’s Lanierland tournament can be for a team like Gainesville boys coach Chuck Graham.
Last year, the Red Elephants entered the event at 4-7, struggling to stay afloat in a difficult Region 8-6A. But the team found its stride in December, sweeping through the Lanierland field and beat East Hall in the finals to defend the title and earn the No. 1 seed for this year’s tournament.
Gainesville only lost two more games for the remainder of the year, the second coming all the way in the Class 6A quarterfinals, after the Red Elephants parlayed their successful finish to the calendar year into a championship push to close out the basketball year. This season, Gainesville enters the event at a low point once again, but Graham is hoping the same formula that brought the team success a year ago can work again going into 2020.
“Everything is still out in front of us,” he said. “Hopefully going into Lanierland, we can find our second wind and play better like last year.”
It’s a hope that teams around the area will carry into the holiday tournament’s 60th edition, making it the longest running annual high school basketball event in the state.
Of the eight participating squads on the boys side, six are at or below .500 as they seek the type of turnaround that propelled the Red Elephants deep into the state playoffs last season.
Among the teams not struggling at this point in the year is North Hall, whose 9-3 record is the best in the county among boys teams. The Trojans will open with a game against Cherokee Bluff — a region opponent — and their coach Tyler Sanders said that despite the team’s hot start, a good week at Lanierland is integral to a successful season.
“It’s big,” he said simply.
On the girls side, Flowery Branch will be looking for its fifth straight title after dominating the event over the past four seasons.
Lady Falcons coach Courtney Newton-Gonzalez said her team’s consistency and readiness has been the most important factor in the continued success.
“I think for us, the biggest key has just been our preparation,” Newton-Gonzalez said. “And obviously we’ve had a talented team as well. They’ve been really focused every year that we’ve won it.”
Among Flowery Branch’s top competition will be last year’s finalist North Hall, who enters the event at 7-4 and has kept up the high level of play that brought the team into the second round of state playoffs last year.
Lady Trojans coach Kristi House emphasized the importance of playing well at the winter tournament — a key point in the season as every Hall County team prepares for the bulk of the region slate.
“It’s a special tournament, and it’s also bragging rights in the county,” House said. “But really, your team can catch on fire there after Christmas and you can kind of ride that into January and into your region play.”
Regardless of team, Lanierland provides a prime opportunity for every participating team to see how its players respond to high-pressure environments.
It’s a chance for every Hall County squad to flex their muscles and earn respect at the midpoint of the high school basketball season.
“I think you can’t replicate the actual atmosphere and the environment of Lanierland,” Graham said. “You’re talking about packed gyms and just the atmosphere. It’s kind of like a state playoff game.”
Lanierland Day 1 Schedule
Dec. 27 at East Hall High School
Lakeview Academy girls vs. Chestatee 9:30 a.m.
Cherokee Bluff boys vs. North Hall 11 a.m.
Cherokee Bluff girls vs. Gainesville 12:30 p.m.
Johnson boys vs. Lakeview Academy 2 p.m.
East Hall girls vs. North Hall 3:30 p.m.
West Hall boys vs. East Hall 5 p.m.
Flowery Branch girls vs. West Hall 6:30 p.m.
Gainesville boys vs. Chestatee 8 p.m.