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'Definitely sweet' - Middle schools take hoops tourney seriously

In Gwinnett County's public middle schools, there is no need to choose which sport to play.

There is only one.

That's why basketball is so important for Gwinnett's eighth-graders and why this time of year is so special for each school's entire student body.

The college or high school versions of March Madness have nothing on the county's middle school hoops hysteria. This is the week where dreams come true or end in disappointment, with all your classmates watching.

"It's a big, big deal," McConnell Middle School principal Paula Everett-Truppi said of eighth-grade basketball. "In many ways, it is the heartbeat of what goes on at our school. We count on the players and cheerleaders to set the examples. They are the leaders."

Gwinnett's 20 middle schools are divided into two divisions and the Elite Eight boys and girls teams in each make the county tournament, which began last weekend. The Eastern Division titles will be decided Friday night at Shiloh High School, while the Western Division championships will be Saturday at Collins Hill.

"Middle School basketball is special, and not just for the players," Gwinnett County athletics and activities director Mike Emery said. "It's the only sport, so it's the one chance to compete or cheer for your school."

Although a big challenge lies ahead in unbeaten Trickum Middle School on Friday, the boys team at McConnell is the toast of Grayson right now.

Richards Middle School in Lawrenceville had won four consecutive Eastern Division titles before being knocked off by McConnell in the semifinals on Tuesday.

"This is definitely sweet," McConnell coach John Meme said afterward. "They had beaten us the last four years, three times in the finals."

McConnell has a towering team by middle school standards, with three starters standing 6-foot-3 or so. But it was little point guard Ryan Carter who led the victory over Richards with 20 points.

"We don't have football or anything, so everyone gets real excited about basketball," Carter said. "It is definitely fun to go to school after you win."

Through 2004, all the Gwinnett middle schools competed together. But the county's growth created the need for two divisions.

Lanier Middle School in Suwanee won both the boys and girls titles in the Western Division last year, while the Trickum girls joined the Richards boys as Eastern Division champions.

Trickum, located in Lilburn, has enjoyed its share of basketball success through the years and this season is no exception. Both the Tigers' boys and girls teams were unbeaten in the 10-game regular season, with the girls playing Crews Middle School of Snellville on Friday as they go for a repeat championship and their third title in five years.

"Everybody is pretty excited here," Lilburn girls coach Tim Yates said. "Basketball is all we have, so the students all get into it. We have a 60-member pep band that plays at our home games and a step team as well as the cheerleaders. Plus, we have our mascot dressed up in a Tiger suit. Our basketball is very good and so is the show."

Gwinnett County has produced plenty of high school state championships and college players the last few years and that talent first goes on display in middle school. The McConnell boys scored 71 points while beating Richards, although quarters are just seven minutes long in middle school.

"There are always a lot of very good players coming up in this county," Richards boys coach Ron Hickman said. "The talent is very good every year."

The Crews girls have a 6-foot-2 player - Rebecca Walker - plus plenty of support and enthusiasm.

"I think basketball is really more important in middle school than high school," Crews girls coach Angie McLane said. "Basketball is the only show for us, while there is so much else going on in high school. We are it in middle school. A lot of our crowds are bigger than for high school varsity games."

SideBar: Championships

Eastern Division

Friday at Shiloh High School

5:30 p.m. - Girls: Trickum vs. Crews

7 p.m. - Boys: Trickum vs. McConnell

Western Division

Saturday at Collins Hill High School

9 a.m. - Girls: Dacula vs. Duluth

10:30 a.m. - Boys: Lanier vs. Dacula