Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett players Baylee Rexing (5), Ariel Johnson (10), center, and Jordan Hyatt (30), right, celebrate their victory over Mill Creek in a state Class AAAAA quarter final girls basketball game played Saturday at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. North Gwinnett defeated Mill Creek 68-43.
There was no question the North Gwinnett girls basketball team set lofty goals for the 2012 season.
"Any time you set your sights on winning a championship, whether it's a region or a state championship, it's not an easy task," North coach Bryan Sellers said. "I'm a firm believer of setting goals high."
While the Bulldogs didn't quite reach their ultimate goal -- the Class AAAAA state championship -- they marked off enough items on their checklist to make the season satisfying.
A 26-4 record that included the program's first trip to the Final Four of the state tournament -- the first since 1963 -- and a No. 4 ranking in the final ga.prepcountry.com state coaches poll were tops among North's accomplishments.
"We made it to the Final Four for the first time in a long time," Sellers said. "Not too many teams and not too many coaches get to say they made it to the Final Four. So, we can't be upset overall."
As Sellers pointed out, reaching their goals was definitely not an easy task for the Bulldogs.
That was especially true facing a schedule that included battling state-ranked teams like No. 2 Norcross and No. 6 Mill Creek in the always rough-and-tumble Region 7-AAAAA, as well as a challenging non-region slate that included in-state powers St. Pius X and Forest Park, plus out-of-state foes from Tennessee and North Carolina.
But thanks to a veteran squad led by junior Daily Post All-County selections Lexie Brown and Peyton Whitted and seniors Ariel Johnson and Jordan Hyatt, the Bulldogs were able to meet even the most stern challenges.
One of the biggest challenges they faced came when Brown, the team's leader in points and assists, missed four games in late January and early February while recovering from mononucleosis.
However, Whitted and Johnson increased their contributions, while others like sophomore guard Baylee Rexing, who moved into the starting lineup during the stretch Brown was out, also assumed more primary roles.
The result, in Sellers eyes, was a team that grew up and grew closer together.
"If you look at how we had to adjust our lineup, it was big," Sellers said. "It made Peyton more aggressive. It gave Baylee more quality minutes, and she took advantage over those three or four games. So, it definitely helped us as the season went on."
Even though the season ended on a disappointing note -- a 56-51 setback to third-ranked Hillgrove in the state semifinals despite North holding a five-point lead heading into the fourth quarter -- the Bulldogs set new standards this season.
And the bar has been set even higher for them next year, when Brown, Whitted and Rexing are all set to return, as are as several key reserves who received significant playing time, like freshman Alyssa Munlyn and Keniesha Wilborn.
But Sellers doesn't believe those high expectations will intimidate his players.
"The expectations we've placed on our girls are that we expect to win," Sellers said. "I think setting our expectations this high is kind of our biggest accomplishment, and hopefully, it will carry over.
"They understand what it takes to win. ... So, our expectations are as high as this year, if not higher."