The Mill Creek girls basketball team won the Parkview Tip-Off Classic last season and went on to reach the Class AAAAA Final Four. Will the host Panthers be able to do the same this season?
After reaching the quarterfinals last season, Parkview is certainly a contender to go even farther this March. But if the Panthers do, they aren't likely to be the only Class AAAAA girls team from Gwinnett County.
Since 2001, Gwinnett's AAAAA girls teams have won six state titles and been runner-up twice. Three championship games have been county match-ups.
Despite the presence of Mill Creek and Duluth in the semifinals, last season was the first time since 2000 that Gwinnett didn't have a team in the Class AAAAA girls title game.
That could easily change this season, however.
Half of the top 10 teams in the GaSports.com/GACA preseason poll were from Gwinnett, signaling just how tough Region 7-AAAAA and 8-AAAAA figure to be this season.
No. 6 Parkview, the 2003 state champion, has given 8-AAAAA some bragging rights with its 4-0 start, but it is 7-AAAAA that has drawn even more attention.
Maya Moore has been gone for a season and no team is dominant like Collins Hill was when it won five state titles in seven seasons (2001, 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2007). But it is hard to beat 7-AAAAA's depth of talented teams.
"Our region is going to be a battle every game," said Norcross coach Angie Hembree, who led Collins Hill to its first three state titles.
How tough is 7-AAAAA, which added Chattahoochee and Northview in realignment?
Six of the 10 schools made the state tournament last season and two of them weren't Norcross - ranked this season - or traditional power Collins Hill.
"This is the most competitive I've ever seen our region," Mill Creek coach Ashley Phillips said.
The first big region test for the Hawks comes today, when fellow 2007 state semifinalist Duluth visits for a 6 p.m. game.
Mill Creek was ranked No. 1 and Duluth No. 3 in the preseason poll, but each has a non-region loss. Mill Creek was edged by two points at No. 5 Marietta after winning its first two games. Duluth lost its opener to Parkview before winning three straight at the Berkmar Tip-Off Tournament, including a victory over the host Patriots.
Mill Creek defeated Duluth three times last season, twice in the regular season and once in the region tournament finals. Duluth has everyone back from last year, while Mill Creek's only major loss was star point guard Porsha Porter.
Mill Creek and Duluth, however, are far from the only strong teams in 7-AAAAA.
Norcross, which picked up transfers Briana Jordan and Anjelica Wilcox from Greater Atlanta Christian, was ranked No. 8 in the preseason and defeated nationally ranked Wesleyan - the defending Class AA state champion - before losing to host Parkview in the Tip-Off Classic.
Peachtree Ridge and North Gwinnett have plenty of returning talent and so does Collins Hill, which hopes to bounce back after a rare absence from the state tournament. Peachtree Ridge, which reached the second round last season, has a victory over No. 7 Berkmar from 8-AAAAA. North Gwinnett, which swept its three games in the Bulldog Classic, hosts Norcross today at 6 p.m.
"Our region is even tougher this year," Peachtree Ridge coach Shana White said.
Region 8-AAAAA will have plenty of tests as well for Parkview, the defending champion. Berkmar, Central Gwinnett and Brookwood joined the Panthers in the state tournament last season and Grayson is 3-0 after winning the East Jackson Tournament.
Making things even more interesting, 7-AAAAA and 8-AAAAA will be matched in the first round of the state tournament this season.
Of course, Class AAAAA is hardly the only place where good girls basketball is played in Gwinnett County. Gwinnett can claim 15 state girls titles in the past eight seasons - nine outside the highest classification.
Buford was ranked No. 1 in the preseason Class AA poll, while Wesleyan was No. 1 in Class A as well as No. 9 nationally in the USA Today rankings.
"There are a lot of very good teams in Gwinnett," Parkview coach Mike McCoy said. "We just hope to be one of them by the end of the season."