The challenging non-region schedules many teams play at the beginning of the season can often pay off in the end.
The boys teams of Region 3AAAAAAA rivals North Cobb, Kennesaw Mountain and Hillgrove are finding out just how much their hardened slates at the beginning of the season are paying off.
A year ago, North Cobb and Kennesaw Mountain did not even make it to the Class AAAAAAA state tournament, while Hillgrove lost in the first round.
A year later, all three teams, along with region rival and defending state champion McEachern, are in the second round.
While McEachern beat at-large opponent Roswell 68-43 in the first round, the other region teams swept their Region 1AAAAAAA opponents.
“I think it definitely benefited us,” Hillgrove coach Ed Morris said of his challenging non-region schedule. “There are a lot of teams in the state tournament that we laid in our non-region schedule that are in the state tournament. Even our region tournament games are tough, and they prepared us for (the playoffs).”
North Cobb advanced by beating Tift County 56-37 at home, Kennesaw Mountain went on the road to beat Colquitt County 65-58 and Hillgrove upset Camden County 46-43 on a buzzer-beater by Nate Meshida.
All three teams will have their hands full as the second round takes place Wednesday and Thursday.
North Cobb will be playing at Milton, Kennesaw Mountain will be at Berkmar and Hillgrove is heading to Norcross. Meanwhile, McEachern (20-5) is favored to win at home against South Forsyth.
North Cobb’s early schedule consisted of Kell, Cherokee and Walker, and it lost two of those three games before finding its comfort zone in region play.
Milton could be the toughest opponent North Cobb (15-12) has faced all season.
“The players know we are playing a talented team,” North Cobb coach Terry Gorsuch said, “but we have played a challenging schedule, and the kids are ready. Sometimes, you don’t like the outcomes early in the year, but we get looks at teams loaded with (future) college players, and it gets you ready for playoff time.”
Gorsuch said it will be up to senior guard Freddy Woods and his teammates to get standout Milton point guard Bruce Thornton and the Eagles’ remaining shooters out of rhythm and force them to take tough shots.
Kennesaw Mountain (10-16) has a size disadvantage and coach Eric Blair said the Mustangs will have to gang-rebound against a Berkmar squad with 6-foot-10 Malique Ewin and 6-9 Jalen DeLoach playing inside the paint.
Kennesaw Mountain is still playing, despite dealing early-season injuries, a first-year coach and a 0-5 record to start the season. Two of those five losses came against Allatoona and Sequoyah, both of which are still playing in the Class AAAAAA tournament.
Since then, freshman Javion Williams has asserted himself for the Mustangs as the starting point guard, with Perry Robinson and Jordan James doing the bulk of the scoring.
“It’s a matter of us being healthy and being together,” Blair said. “We had a lot of adversity to overcome throughout our season, including me being a first-year head coach. We play seven guys, but those guys have really clicked as far as becoming connected.”
Hillgrove (11-16) started the season 1-5 before putting a few wins together. While the Hawks have had their ups-and-downs throughout the season, Morris said his teams are at their best when the stakes are high.
Norcross, led by Georgia signee Josh Taylor, will not make it easy.
“Our kids seemed to play better when backs are against the wall,” Morris said. “We’re in that boat again. You win and go home. We just want to put together a solid game.”
In the Class AAAAAAA girls bracket, McEachern and North Cobb are the only Region 3AAAAAAA teams that remain, and both are eager to surpass last year’s shortcomings.
North Cobb got stunned by Pebblebrook at home in the first round of last year’s tournament after a successful regular season, while McEachern lost to Roswell at home in the second round.
North Cobb will have a challenge on its hands as it travels to a traditionally sound North Forsyth team. McEachern will stay at home to host Parkview.
McEachern may prefer not to have another slow start after coming from behind in the second half to beat Lowndes 61-48 in the first round, behind 17 points apiece from Denim DeShields and Caelyn Ellis.
After beating Colquitt County 56-37 at home behind 17 points from Azonya Austin, North Cobb will be facing a North Forsyth that can shoot well from beyond the arc and play aggressive man-to-man defense.
Coach John Speeney anticipates a “grind-it-out” game between the teams and said it will take discipline to prevail.