Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan North Gwinnett's Peyton Whitted (25), Lexi Brown (4) and Stephanie Amichia (23) celebrate as time expires in the Bulldogs 57-40 victory over North Cobb during State AAAAAA high school girls basketball semifinals at the McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta Saturday.
Road trip to Macon!
With Gwinnett represented by five of the 14 teams in the coming state basketball championship weekend in Macon there should be plenty of Gwinnett license plates trucking down I-75 beginning Friday.
Wesleyan's girls kick off the Gwinnett title hunt Friday at 3 p.m. against Laney with the Greater Atlanta Christian boys following at 4:45 against Bleckley County. Then it's the big schools' turn Saturday with yet another showdown between Region 7-AAAAAA rivals Norcross and North Gwinnett at 7 p.m. and the Norcross boys capping off the weekend at 8:45 vs. upstart Hillgrove.
"It's always exciting playing in March," Norcross head coach Jesse McMillan said.
A fact all these coaches know. Only North head coach Bryan Sellers doesn't already have a state title ring and McMillan is the only one with just one as a head coach.
But Sellers and his Bulldogs know how to win championships, beating Norcross earlier this season for the 7-AAAAAA crown. It's a redemption run for both teams after losing last year, separately, in the semis.
"It was extremely motivating, especially knowing that this is (the seniors') last shot at it," Norcross' Diamond DeShields said of making a third state title run as a senior with the memory of last year's loss. "We have the utmost respect for each of our competitors. We don't expect them to roll over for us at any moment, but we know how it feels to lose this late in the game. We didn't want that feeling again. We just made it an obligation to come out here and play Norcross basketball."
Norcross certainly respects North Gwinnett. The Bulldogs won two of the team's three meetings this season, just another wrinkle in this Gwinnett vs. Gwinnett match. Add to that some of the nation's top players in Norcross' DeShields (North Carolina) and North's Lexie Brown (Maryland), along with the Blue Devils' Shayla Cooper (Georgetown) and North's Peyton Whitted (Penn State) and Baylee Rexing (Ole Miss) and the drama intensifies.
"I think it's good for girls basketball," Sellers said. "It's just going to be a great basketball game. The best girls, not just in the state, but in the country, on the same floor in the state championship game, that's what movies are made out of."
Then there's Wesleyan, led by Auburn-bound Katie Frerking. Returning to Class AA, the Wolves have steamrolled every foe back into the finals as they chase state championship No. 10 under head coach Jan Azar. A win Friday would be a state-record six in a row and nine in a 10-year span for the Wolves, who literally play across the street from Norcross High School.
And that's just the girls.
Both boys teams, GAC and Norcross, have recent state championship pedigrees, but the specific players headed to Macon this weekend bring relatively little experience.
Brandon Goodwin, Norcross' point guard, is a senior, but after he helped steady the Blue Devils in the fourth quarter of the Class AAAAAA semifinals against North Cobb, admitted this was new territory for him.
"I haven't really played in a game like this," he said, noting last year's first-round playoff exit. "I usually prepare myself and me and my teammates, we just came together."
The Spartans are similar, despite playing in their third title game in the past four season. There is senior Collin Swinton and beyond him, it's a new cast, highlighted by Isaiah Wilkins and Troy Morrison, for head coach Eddie Martin.
"We're still a young team. ... We've still got a little bit of youthfulness in us," Martin said.
But GAC's boys will keep special company this weekend in Macon. The company of state championship contenders. Many just happened to be neighbors.
"We're still learning as we go, but hey, the bottom line is, we're playing for it all," Martin said. "That's what we want to do."