After reaching the Elite Eight a year ago, the Flowery Branch girls are poised to climb even higher this season. Encouraged by a fast start against some rugged competition, the Falcons are expected to be in the picture at the end of the season – if they can survive a brutal Region 8 schedule.
“We played a tough schedule on purposed,” said coach Courtney Newton-Gonzalez. “We played some bigger schools and we played three really good teams in Tennessee. We wanted to play some tougher teams to get us ready for our region.”
Flowery Branch went 29-1 last season, losing to Brunswick in the quarterfinals. The reclassification shuffle now has them in the same league with Buford, Loganville and Clarke Central.
Flowery Branch lost five seniors, but returns starting point guard Lexie Sengkhammee (12.4 points), forward Taniyah Worth (18 points, 10 rebounds) and center Julianne Sutton (nine points).
The Falcons are a defensive oriented team that likes to set the pace by playing good man-to-man defense and throwing an occasional press at the opposition. The defense also creates opportunities for the offense to run and push the ball, with Sengkhammee there to knock down the 3-pointer.
The Falcons (9-2) and lost their last game to Buford 53-44 on Dec. 16. They return to action on Wednesday against Johnson in the first round of the Lanierland Tournament.
Here are four other girls teams to watch:
Buford: The Wolves return all their starters from last year’s 25-6 team that reached the Final Four. They carry a perfect 8-0 record into the Grayson Ram Classic, which starts Wednesday. Buford beat then-No. 1-ranked Flowery Branch and decimated defending Class AAA champion Morgan County 74-17 before the break. Buford is led by junior Tory Ozment, who averaged 11.1 points and 3.5 assists. Audrey Weiner, Jessica Nelson and Marissa Bruce are also consistent scorers.
Griffin: Coach Veronica Lee’s girls are off to a 13-0 start and capped the first half of the campaign by winning the Woodward War Eagle Classic. Andeija Puckett, a 6-2 senior, leads the team with 19.7 points and 9.9 rebounds. Griffin also gets good production from sophomores Zakoria Berry (8.0 points, 3.1 steals, 2.3 assists) and Daisya Reid (7.0 points, 5.0 rebounds).
Arabia Mountain: The young Rams began the season by winning their first nine games, more than validating last year’s 20-win season. Arabia Mountain’s top players are sophomore Kennedi Manning (9.1 points, 11.1 rebounds), Iyanna McMillan (7.9 points) , Alina Shoemake (3.6 steals, 3.1 assists), freshman Ke’Andrewa Middlebrooks (6.3 rebounds). Their biggest test will come on Jan. 6 at Southwest DeKalb, which fields a strong, experienced and tested team.
Carrollton: The Trojans are off to a 9-0 start, thanks largely to its stellar defense. Only three teams have scored more than 40 points against Carrollton, with the most coming from state-ranked Villa Rica. Coach Shon Thomaston has held three opponents in the teens. Carrollton will travel to Charleston, S.C., on Dec. 28-30 to compete in the Carolina Invitational.
Here are five boys teams to watch
Miller Grove has the history and the track record, but the Wolverines won’t find it easy this year under the restructured Class AAAAA. Miller Grove has a new coach in Rasul Chester who took over when Sharman White took an assistant’s position at Georgia State. The Wolverines are in Region 5, which is loaded with contenders like Southwest DeKalb and No. Columbia, as well as an improved Arabia Mountain team, Chamblee and Lithonia.
Miller Grove (8-3) is led by Naquante Hardy, a senior who leads DeKalb County players in scoring at 24.2 points per game and also averages 4.2 rebounds and 4.0 steals. Lorenzo Anderson averages 10 points, Kevin Paige averages 7.6 rebounds and Jermon Clark averages 5.0 rebounds.
Buford: The Wolves have already proven to be more formidable this season, starting 9-0 after a less-than-satisfying 16-14 run a year ago. Buford is led by Sahi Patel, a 6-8 center who averaged 10.9 points and 8.9 rebounds last year, and point guard Alex Jones, who averaged 11 points and 5.9 steals). Transfers Donnell Nixon, who averaged 12.4 points last season as a freshman at Mountain View, and 6-6 sophomore Marcus Watson, a North Carolina transplant, have been big helps. Buford will play in the Arby’s Classic, which starts Wednesday.
Eagle’s Landing: The Eagles are off to a 10-2 start, losing to AAA power South Atlanta in the Peach State Tournament final before the break. Brandon Thomas (13.0 points, 4.3 rebounds), Mohammed Abubakkar (11.5 points, 6.2 rebounds), Tarrence Evans (9.6 points) and Christopher Hood (9.4) lead the balanced offensive team. The Eagles return to action on Jan. 6 at Woodland
Fayette County: The Tigers have burst out of the gate with a 10-2 record. The high-scoring group features four double-figure scorers: Noah Gurley (17.7 points), Austin Nesmith (13.2 points), Phillip Young (12.1 points) and Josh Dupree (10.6 points). Coach Andre Flynn’s team plays again from Dec. 27-30 at the Republic Bank Classic in Lexington.
Warner Robins: The Demons may be the top team from the southern portion of the classification. Coach Jamaal Garman’s club, which went 21-3 and lost in the second round of the playoffs, is off to a 10-1 start. Junior guard Nelson Phillips has seen his stock rise since the summer and is now on the radar of several mid-major programs.