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Thackham: Hall County athletes were impressive throughout the 2014/2015 season
From football scrimmages to soccer championships, athletes in NE Georgia showed immense talent
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East Hall’s Chelsea Dale defends Beach’s Jacqueline Anderson in the Class AAA semifinals in February in Columbus. The Lady Vikings’ run through the playoffs was one of the highlights of an exciting 2014-2015 season. - photo by Erin O. Smith

On one of my first nights at The Times, in late August, I remember helping to design the Flowery Branch football preview capsules, utterly clueless of how the Falcons would fare in the coming season. Perhaps I should have cut my summer internship short a little sooner.

I had met coach Chris Griffin for the first time just days earlier I was due to finish my preview. But trying to educate the populace over whether his O-line would hold up under pressure (without having seen a down) seemed about as realistic as predicting the weather by staring at the ground.

Luckily, I’ve since spent enough time in Northeast Georgia to get to know the area a little, something I’ve found invaluable. And after a full school year, I jotted down a few observations from the 2014-15 year in review.

1. BASKETBALL IS HOLY IN HALL: Stay with me, folks, because I’m about to describe a feeling that most people around here already know all too well. One of the highlights of my living in Georgia is sitting among the “surely-far-more-than-legal crowd” at Chestatee High School as Gainesville took on defending champion Johnson in the Lanierland title game.

Even if it was held at Philips Arena, there would still be standing-room only sections. Johnson fans, Gainesville fans, after a while, it didn’t even matter. Everyone in that gym on that day was a basketball fan, screaming his or her lungs out at every ridiculous call or Ty Cockfield dunk.

For a few breathless seconds, a wave of acknowledgement hit me: I wasn’t just covering a game, I was experiencing a moment. Maybe one day, I’ll get used to it. But in that moment, I understood why basketball is holy in Hall County.

Speaking of basketball...

2. EAST HALL’S GIRLS BASKETBALL PLAYOFF RUN WAS A SIGHT TO BEHOLD: It wasn’t just the winning streak. It wasn’t just the scorching-hot 3-point shooting. It wasn’t just coach Justin Wheeler’s excellent ability to stretch his bench.

No, it was East Hall’s ability to play the right way, that made them my favorite basketball team to cover this year.

The Lady Vikings, led by senior guards Jatasia Bailey and Chelsea Dale, were an up-tempo, aggressive group that epitomized the word “team.” Every girl on the floor touched the basketball on a play, which wore out opponents accustomed to covering their stars, like Peach County (Nausia Woolfolk) and Calhoun (Jana Johns).

From the starters to the contributors, each player was gracious in her own right, and always willing to share their thoughts. Kindness is something to be valued above wins and losses.

3. HALL COUNTY HAS ITS FAVORITES: After watching how much love the area has given to native sons Blake Sims and Deshaun Watson, it’s become clear — Hall County takes care of its own.

Perhaps it’s because they come back often, whether in the form of first pitches at baseball games or dinner parties.

Loyalty is an oft-forgotten value in our immediate satisfaction-based culture, but Hall County residents are always eager to follow the successes of their own.

So when Gainesville’s Spencer Ralston is hunting down the pack on the PGA Tour or Johnson’s Fabian Abarca is celebrating a goal in Major League Soccer one day, make sure to pay attention. I’m sure they’ll make their way back home every once in a while, too.

4. BUFORD IS A JUGGERNAUT ... AND THAT’S OK: I was once told that kids who attend Buford High School major in athletics and minor in academics. Given the Wolves’ excellent record (26 state titles since 2001), it’s a point that’s hard to argue.

The gripe I’ve heard with some fans about Buford’s athletic success revolves around recruitment — being able to attract athletic talent from both the city, and the surrounding areas of Gwinnett County.

I find nothing wrong with that concept. Geography, these days, is hardly a limitation. College coaches aren’t given the same type of scrutiny for attracting transfers and plugging them in a system.

Don’t hate the players, and don’t hate the game. The Wolves will be running for a long time to come.

5. FOOTBALL SEASON CAN’T COME QUICK ENOUGH: Pardon me for reusing a phrase typically linked with soccer, but in Georgia, football is a religion.

Where I grew up in South Carolina, fans of the Walhalla Razorbacks would line up by the hundreds to see my perpetually-mediocre school go four-and-out on more drives than I can remember. And they loved every bit of it.

Hall County schools back up their passion with results. West Hall looks primed to make another strong run in Region 7-AAA, Gainesville should return a strong offensive core and Flowery Branch’s offensive line will get better, I’m sure.

What I’ve treasured most in my time in Hall County is to see fans get so excited for matchups, the game and the players. Because the kids respond to that.

It’ll be a long, hot summer, but football will be back, I promise. And I’ll be the first one up in the press box. Save me a seat!

David Thackham has been a sportswriter with The Times in Gainesville since August 2014. Email him at dthackham@gainesvilletimes.com or Tweet him @DThackham with any of your thoughts or questions.

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