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Rodrigue: Plenty to keep an eye on as basketball season gets underway
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Gainesville's KJ Buffen (0) puts up a shot while being guarded by Langston Hughes' Josh Butts (32) during Tuesday night's Class AAAAAA basketball state quarterfinals game at Gainesville High School. - photo by Erin O. Smith

There’s a crisp chill in the air and multicolored leaves littering the ground, signaling the changing of the seasons for Mother Nature.

Same goes for high school sports.

With just one local football team remaining in the playoffs and basketball season getting into full swing this week, it’s time to look ahead at the hoops campaign to come. Several state contenders occupy the area, leaving no shortage of storylines to follow over the next four months.

Let’s take a look at some of the most pressing questions facing area boys and girls teams as the season gets underway.

BOYS

Is this Gainesville’s year?

The pollsters certainly seem to think so.

Ranked No. 1 in Class 6A by Score Atlanta and MaxPreps.com, the Red Elephants open the season as favorites to win the state title. They were in the mix a year ago, falling to eventual champion Langston Hughes 72-69 in a back-and-forth quarterfinal game.

The good news for Benjie Wood’s squad is it returns nearly every piece from last season, most importantly a huge senior class loaded with athleticism.

Middle Tennessee State commit KJ Buffen is a dynamic scorer alongside stretch four Bailey Minor. Six-foot-6 twins Jarred and Jarrel Rosser provide a presence in the paint and length on defense, while Kajuan Hale is another capable scorer who will likely run the point.

But Wood will roll out his entire bench to supplement Gainesville’s swarming, full-court pressure defense. With depth and talent to match most teams in the state, the Red Elephants will probably be playing into March.

Can East Hall return to its former glory?

In the decade-plus since East Hall’s dominant run of three state championships between 2001-05, the Vikings have continually come close to another title.

It seems like they have the talent to make another deep run.

Using its relentless defensive pressure, East Hall hopes to disrupt opponents and create easy buckets with turnovers. Sharpshooting guards Luke Cooper and Luke Holtzclaw can stretch the floor in half-court sets, giving two-sport athlete and All-Region talent Sedrion Morse room to operate down low.

One of the biggest questions for coach Joe Dix will be finding another interior player following Mahki Brown’s graduation.

But if the Vikings (ranked No. 7 in Class 3A by Score Atlanta) can produce a viable answer, they’ll have a chance to advance past the second round of the playoffs — and possibly further — for the first time since 2015.

Can Lakeview Academy sustain newfound success?

After making their first-ever state semifinal appearance last season, the Lions face a stiff challenge trying to create a repeat.

Gone are explosive scorers Tre Gober and Josh Randolph, four-year starters who helped elevate Lakeview Academy to a state championship contender. Replacing those go-to guys won’t be easy, but fifth-year coach Todd Cottrell has an experienced and capable roster at his disposal.

The centerpiece of the Lions’ attack will be senior guard Drew Cottrell, a GACA All-State selection who’s deadly from beyond the arc. Evan Pitts is a returning post player, while guards Jack Blackburn, KJ Millwood and Adam Cottrell all received valuable minutes last year.

As the fourth-ranked team in Score Atlanta’s preseason Class A-Private rankings, Lakeview Academy is saddled with big expectations. The Lions can make that the new norm with a deep playoff run this season.

GIRLS

Will Flowery Branch take the next step?

In their first-ever state semifinal appearance last season, the moment seemed a little too big for the Lady Falcons as they let a fourth-quarter lead slip away.

That shouldn’t be a problem this year.

With arguably the area’s best player in Alabama commit Taniyah Worth (15.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game last season), Flowery Branch has a playmaker that can carry it to state championship contention once again.

Her supporting cast isn’t bad, either. Lexie Sengkhammee is a consistent 3-point threat, Ashley Woodroffe has experience running the offense and Caroline Wysocki is a tenacious defender and rebounder from the guard spot.

The No. 2 Lady Falcons will likely miss forward Julianne Sutton, who’s already making significant contributions as a freshman at the University of North Georgia. On top of that, the road to the Class 5A state title will likely run through region foe and top-ranked Buford, which cruised to the championship last year.

But Flowery Branch was competitive with the Lady Wolves in all three games last season despite falling short each time. Worth and the Lady Falcons can show they’re ready to take a step forward when they face Buford on Dec. 15.

Will West Hall get a decent playoff draw?

That’s largely out of the Lady Spartans’ control, but it made all the difference last season.

West Hall hosted Columbus in a top-five matchup in just the second round of last year’s Class 4A tournament, falling 50-47 in a competitive game from start to finish against the eventual state champion.

Lady Spartans coach Bryan Richerson said following the game that it felt like a state title clash, and second-ranked West Hall is hoping to finally experience the real thing this year.

The chances of that are quite good with senior guard Anna McKendree, a fiery player who routinely scores 30 or more points in a single game. The returning Class 4A North Co-Player of the Year will likely take on an even greater role after the departure of stat-stuffing guard Macy Passmore, who now plays at Francis Marion University.

Megan English, Danielle Hinkelman and Avery Prather are also gone from that star-studded senior class. But with Reagan Horton back and Richerson’s fairly experienced sophomore group one year older, the Lady Spartans’ path to state championship contention is reasonable.

Unless, of course, they have to play another top-five team in the early rounds of the playoffs.

Who will surprise us this year?

Dawson County’s run to the Class 3A quarterfinals last year was as stunning as any across the state, and there’s surely another local team primed for a dark-horse campaign.

It likely won’t be the Lady Tigers, who look like frontrunners as they open the year ranked eighth and return plenty of production from last year’s team.

But there are squads like Lakeview Academy and Gainesville that lost 1,500-point scorers to graduation (Hanna Grogan and Taylor Hawks, respectively) but have experience on the roster following playoff appearances.

East Hall brings back almost its entire roster — including Georgia State signee Carly Winters  — after claiming the No. 1 seed in the Region 7-3A tournament last year. The Lady Vikings stumbled down the stretch, taking on a No. 4 playoff seed and first-round exit, but Justin Wheeler’s squad has the talent and experience to make a postseason push.

Or could it be Chestatee, which challenged West Hall until the final seconds in two of the teams’ three meetings a year ago? The loss of a large senior class including Dawndria Bell and Becca Eddins will sting, but guards Lindsey Caudell and Peri Satterfield seem capable of stepping up.

It could even be one of the several other area squads not listed here. That’s the beauty of a young season when all the possibilities are within reach.

Marcus Rodrigue is a sports reporter for The Times. He can be reached at mrodrigue@gainesvilletimes.com or @RodrigueReport on Twitter.

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