Hoops champs take same paths to title defense

Photo by Heather Meadows

Photo by Heather Meadows

It's hard to not see the similarities.

There are plenty of games and plenty of tournament teams from Gwinnett County can schedule and yet the top three girls programs the past few years keep finding themselves in the same company.

Just look at last season. The future Class A champions Wesleyan met the to-be Class AAAAA champs and neighbors Norcross in the consolation finals of the Crescent Bank Invitational in Myrlte Beach, S.C. Both teams played and beat Alabama power Hoover. Future Class AA champs Buford and Wesleyan met in a regular season game and all three traveled out of state to play top teams from across the nation.

Really, they are those top teams.

"It's great because now all the classifications in our state are being represented," Buford coach Gene Durden said "Not only are the AAAAA schools going, but Wesleyan from single-A and us.

"It shows the strength of all the classifications that we have in Georgia and especially in the Gwinnett County area."

Fast forward to this season.

All three girls programs will play in Wesleyan's Battle of the Southeast. Wesleyan and Buford both earned invitations to the Nike Tournament of Champions in Pheonix in December. Norcross will again play Hoover, host its own tournament and travel to Washington, D.C., to play in a national invitational tournament at Howard University that includes national power Christ the King out of New York.

Like their male counterparts, the aggressive scheduling is designed to not just raise the national status of three of the state's top programs, but, more importantly, to prepare these talent-rich teams for the year's final tournament for Georgia's state crown.

"You are not going to know a lot about your opponents, you are going to basically adjust to the other team's strengths and weakness (during the game)," Durden said. "That is great preparation for when you get in the state tournament.

"It does a great job of preparing you for your final goal."

That final goal never changes, no matter how many straight state titles these teams rip off. Wesleyan sits at four (and eight of the past 10), Buford won the past three and Norcross the last two.

Having players like Norcross' Diamond DeShields and Buford's Kaela Davis, the top two recruits in Georgia doesn't hurt either the title chances or the open doors to the nation's best tournaments.

"We've been very blessed and fortunate now with the success the program has had and a lot of tournaments are inviting us to play in tough events with a lot of nationally ranked teams," Durden said. "It's an honor to be able to go out and represent not only you school, but the state of Georgia in these big-time tournaments."

And, at the moment, these schools aren't going alone. Sure they leave the state, but with the stock of talent in the area, the local tournaments are equally compelling. The presence of all three multiple-defending champs spices up January's Battle of the Southeast with local pride on the line.

But all the travel and tournaments are just preparation. They are showcase the teams, schools and players, but mostly prepare them for the final tournament every season.

"Basketball is a tournament game," Durden said. "You want to be playing your best, you want to know your weaknesses when you get to the region tournament and the state tournament and the only way to find those weaknesses out is to play great opponents."