Norcross, Central could boost Final Four crowds

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

For a Friday, it was a bit of a downer for those in the Gwinnett basketball community. It felt more like a Monday.

The Georgia High School Association's Final Four basketball tournament has been played in the Arena at Gwinnett Center since 2004, annually drawing the state's top teams, many coming from right here in Gwinnett County. That changed last season, when only one Gwinnett team, the Parkview girls, reached the semifinals.

When the Panthers lost Thursday afternoon, it meant the showcase Friday of Class AAAAA and AAAA games would be without a Gwinnett representative. That was bad for the egos of Gwinnett fans, but it also wasn't great news for the GHSA, either.

It's something the organization hopes changes this Thursday and Friday, when both the Central Gwinnett boys and Norcross girls will represent the county.

"From a financial point of view, the GHSA wants Gwinnett teams in there," said former Brookwood football coach and athletic director Dave Hunter, a GHSA Executive Committee member. "It's about money. We want to put people in the seats. So when we have Norcross or Collins Hill, the attendance is just much better because people are close to there."

The numbers support Hunter's opinion.

In the six years the GHSA has held the Final Four in Duluth, its lowest attendance figures came in 2009. Gwinnett had sent multiple teams to the Final Four the previous five years, but last year it was just one -- Parkview.

A total of 4,106 fans attended last year's AAAAA semifinals, down more than 1,200 from the previous year and more than 3,000 fans less than the 2007 event.

The 2009 AAAAA and AAAA combined finals sported similar numbers, with the crowd of 7,749 falling well short of the all-time best of 2007, when the figure was 11,831 to see Collins Hill beat South Gwinnett in Maya Moore's final game, as well as to see Norcross win its second straight boys title.

The championship game attendance was by far its lowest ever in Gwinnett by more than 1,200 fans. More Gwinnett teams in the mix likely would have helped those figures, but the down year for local AAAAA teams meant no teams qualified.

The on-court result was just as disappointing for anyone involved in Gwinnett hoops, ranging from fans to local high school coaches, many who volunteer their time at the arena to make sure the event runs smoothly.

"Those (Gwinnett coaches) are my colleagues, so of course I want them to win, I'm pulling for them," Norcross girls coach Angie Hembree said. "(As coaches), we're going to be there whether (our team's) in it or not, whether we're working, helping or cheering. But we want to see our local teams play well."

Hembree's Norcross girls join David Allen's Central boys are the county's hometown favorites this week. The two schools play back-to-back in Thursday's semifinals, with the Norcross girls at 4 p.m. and the Central boys at 5:30 p.m. Both teams play Westlake, so GHSA hopes also include a considerable showing from the Westlake crowd.

Hembree wouldn't mind a repeat of what she saw from the Gwinnett fans when she was Collins Hill's coach in 2005. Both her Eagles and Norcross had double the crowd support when the two high schools' crowds began rooting for each other in the postseason.

"Norcross played after us and the Norcross kids cheered for us and our kids stayed to cheer for them," Hembree said. "That was a great night."

The state tournament kicks off Wednesday in Gwinnett with the AAAA semifinals, followed by the AAAAA semifinals Thursday and the finals for both classifications on Friday.

The AAA, AA and A Final Fours -- which feature the Wesleyan boys and girls, Greater Atlanta Christian boys and girls and the Buford girls -- will be held Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday in Macon.