The departures of Miller Grove and Southwest DeKalb to Class AAAAA before the start of the 2016-17 school year opened the door for some fresh faces on the basketball champions’ podium in the state’s second-largest classification.
After all, the Miller Grove boys had won seven state championships in the previous eight seasons, and the Southwest DeKalb girls had won five titles in nine years.
Region 5 teams Hughes and Mays took advantage of the opportunity. The Hughes boys rolled past Brunswick 73-52 to bring home the first basketball championship in school history. Mays’ girls beat Harrison 52-51 in the final to claim their first state title since 2003 and second overall.
Expect both teams, especially the Hughes boys, to be factors in the championship races again this year. Here are some of the teams to watch as the second half of the regular season draws near:
*Bradwell Institute: The Tigers haven’t reached the playoffs since 2014 and have not advanced beyond the final 16 since 1971, but they are ranked No. 6 (Score Atlanta) after an 8-4 start. Two of the losses came to Brunswick by two points each, including one in overtime. Khalyn Weekley, who averaged 19.2 points through the early part of the schedule, is a potential all-state player.
*Brunswick: The Pirates, who lost in the state championship game last season, are ranked No. 1 by Score Atlanta after a 10-1 start. Brunswick suffered its only loss, 58-44 against Southwest DeKalb, last week, but bounced back with wins over Camden County and Bradwell Institute. DaQuan Humphreys scored 23 points and Marcus Scott added 22 in the 73-63 victory against Camden County
*Gainesville: The Red Elephants are lurking at No. 15 in the MaxPreps rankings despite a 3-6 start. All of their losses have come against AAAAAAA or out-of-state teams. Gainesville almost always gets a boost once football season is over, and we’ll find out more about the Red Elephants when they begin play in Region 8 against Dacula and Habersham Central the first weekend in January.
*Hughes: The Panthers have won eight consecutive games since starting the season with losses to St. Pius and Mountain Brook, the No. 2-ranked team in Alabama’s Class 7A. Landers Nolley, a Virginia Tech signee and first-team all-state selection last season, is averaging 32.3 points per game and scored 51 in a 75-66 victory over Mays last week. Hughes is ranked No. 1 by MaxPreps.
*Jonesboro: The Cardinals had a down year by their standards last season, losing in the second round after reaching at least the semifinals (with two state titles) in five of the previous six seasons. Jonesboro will be a factor again this season, ranked No. 4 after starting 6-1. Jamari Smith, who is headed to Queens University in Charlotte, averaged 25 points and 13 rebounds in the early going.
*Harrison: The Hoyas lost first-team all-state player Sydne Wiggins, Raicheal Tringali and Avery Jordan off last year’s state runner-up team, but they are 7-2 and ranked No. 3 by Score Atlanta this season. The losses came against Class AAAAAAA powers Norcross and Collins Hill. Seniors Audrey Jordan, an honorable mention all-state selection, and point guard Harper Vick are key returnees.
*Lovejoy: Lovejoy was a bit of a surprise semifinalist last year, when it advanced beyond the second round for the first time in school history. But with the return of sophomore star Genesis Bryant, the Wildcats are no longer a surprise. They are 9-1 overall, tied for first place in Region 4 and ranked No. 2 by Score Atlanta. Bryant is leading Clayton County in scoring with 19.3 points per game.
*Mays: The Raiders suffered a big loss with the graduation of Kamiyah Street, the Class AAAAAA player of the year last season who is now the leading scorer for Kennesaw State. Mays is 2-4 overall and 2-2 in Region 5 play heading into next week’s SoCal Holiday Prep Classic, but don’t count out Chantay Frost’s team – Mays was unranked heading into last year’s state tournament.
*Northview: The Titans reached the semifinals for the first time last season behind first-team all-state player Shannon Titus and second-teamer Ashlee Austin. Titus is playing for Mercer now, but Austin is back for her junior season. She averaged 19.2 points and 10.8 rebounds through the first nine games. Northview (8-2, 5-0) is the only Region 7 team that is unbeaten in region play.
*Winder-Barrow: Olivia Nelson-Ododa led the Bulldoggs to a runner-up finish in 2016, but her team was knocked out in the quarterfinals last season after she suffered a knee injury that sidelined her for the postseason. She’s back this season, and so is Winder-Barrow, which is 7-1 and was ranked No. 1 until a five-point loss to Lanier last week. Nelson-Ododa has signed with Connecticut.