Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett's Baylee Rexing (5) defends Hillgrove's Maurissa Lester (24) during the girls Class AAAAA state basketball semifinal game last season.
North Gwinnett advanced to the semifinals of the state girls basketball tournament for the first time since 1963 last season, but still fell two victories short of its ultimate goal.
Come this March, the Bulldogs hope to be celebrating their first state championship.
North goes into the season as one of the Class AAAAAA favorites, although they have plenty of competition. Included, of course is region-rival Norcross, which won two straight titles before being unseated by McEachern.
"I feel that we should have as good a team as last season and could potentially be better," coach Bryan Sellers said. "But a lot goes into having success in the state tournament.
"You have to being playing your best basketball at the right time, plus seeding and the brackets come into play. You have to be good, but it helps to be lucky, too."
The Bulldogs are again led by Lexie Brown, who is rated among top senior guards in the nation. The University of Maryland recruit averaged 18 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 4.8 steals last season while earning first-team all-state honors.
Also back is 6-foot-3 senior Peyton Whitted, who is headed to Penn State and, like Brown, is a Top 100 prospect. She was second on the team in scoring last year at 12.6 points per game and first in rebounding with an average of 7.8.
Brown and Whitted are joined by another returning starter in sophomore point guard Baylee Rexing. A couple of key reserves from last season's 26-4 team are also back and Bulldogs picked up two talented transfers.
Senior Kenisha Wilborn and 6-foot-2 sophomore Alyssa Munlyn got plenty of playing time last season, and North added Stephanie Amechia and Joshlyn Belcher from Peachtree Ridge and Wesleyan, respectively.
The 6-foot-2 Amechia averaged 9.3 points and 7.0 rebounds for Peachtree Ridge last season and was a third-team all-county pick by the Daily Post. Belcher made 54 3-pointers and average 6.0 points as Wesleyan won the Class A state title. Both are juniors.
With the move to six classes, North Gwinnett is competing in AAAAAA rather an AAAAA, but Region 7 remains one of the toughest in the state.
Half of the Bulldogs' losses last year came against Norcross, which won the region championship are splitting the two regular-season games. Both made the state semifinals, with North Gwinnett losing 56-51 to Hillgrove and Norcross falling to eventual champion McEachern 64-61.
"It definitely helps you get ready for the state tournament by playing in a tough region," Sellers said. "When we beat Norcross two years ago, it gave our team a lot of confidence."
No one would be surprised if the Bulldogs and Blue Devils meet four times this season, with the last meeting late in the state tournament.
Brown and Norcross star Diamond DeShields are best friends as well as future college rivals in the ACC. DeShields is headed to North Carolina.
"They are real competitors on the court, but off it just friends," Sellers said. "It's nice to see that with two great players."
The Bulldogs open the season on Nov. 17 against Fayette County in the Lady Blue Tip-Off at Norcross. Then they go back to Norcross on Nov. 30 for the first of the teams' two-regular season meetings.
A third meeting in the region tournament is likely and don't bet against another meeting in the state tournament as well.