Pregame hype? Check.
Packed parking lot? Check.
Standing room only in the stands? Check.
Two great teams battling solely for pride? Check.
Those are the qualifications for any great rivalry game. For those few Hall County residents not in attendance for Friday’s North Hall-East Hall game, the above characteristics also define that contest between the best boys basketball rivalry in the area.
Read that again.
The North Hall boys against the East Hall boys is the best basketball rivalry. Not Gainesville-East Hall. Not West Hall-Johnson. And definitely not Gainesville-North Hall since the two teams didn’t play last year and won’t again this year unless they meet in Lanierland, the Region 8-AAA tournament or, dare I say it, the Class AAA state tournament.
Nope, it’s North Hall against East Hall. That’s a fact.
Friday night proved as much. In just the fourth game of the year, the battle between these two top-five teams (the 4-0 Trojans are No. 2 in Class AAA and the now 3-2 Vikings are ranked No. 4 in Class AA) packed the East Hall gym well before the girls game tipped off, and the raucous crowd stayed for every second of the 60-57 North Hall win.
“This is high school athletics at its finest,” North Hall coach Benjie Wood said afterward. “There are two teams here trying to kill each other on the court, but once the game is over, we all hug and move on.
“It’s just great for the kids and the communities.”
That’s what most people used to say about the games between Gainesville and East Hall. But has this rivalry past that one?
“It’s right up there,” East Hall coach Joe Dix said. “North Hall has elevated its program and they have a great team with a lot of experience.”
This rivalry was unheard of just a few years ago when East Hall was dominating on the court and winning three state championships from 2001-07. Then there’s North Hall, which had some trying years before Wood came aboard in 2006.
Since then, the Trojans and Vikings have played 12 times with North Hall leading the series 7-5. The Trojans have dominated the series recently, winning three of the last four and seven out of nine dating back to Jan. 15, 2008. That total includes Friday night when the atmosphere in the gymnasium felt more like a semifinal playoff game than it did the fourth game of the season.
Playing in front of a packed house that was just as rowdy during the girls game as it was the boys, the Trojans and Vikings left everything they had on the court in a game that meant nothing in the standings.
It used to, but when the Georgia High School Association reclassified schools last year, the Vikings and Trojans found themselves no longer together in Region 7-AAA. But just because the GHSA says they’re in different classifications doesn’t mean they’re in different leagues.
They’re contrasting in style, but not in talent. Their respective coaches are different, yet still overwhelmingly brilliant and successful. Their fan bases are loud and supportive, which ensures a great environment every time they face off.
When they play each other, it’s a must-see. And that’s just how great rivalries are supposed to be.
Jonathan Zopf is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesjzopf