GAINESVILLE -- It's a long road trip to Orlando, but Gainesville Wildcats AAU basketball coach Lee Chapman is actually looking forward to the eight-hour journey south.
He knows he'll have plenty of entertainment along the way.
"You should hear the stories I'll hear on the way down there," said Chapman, who will drive the Wildcats -- made up of area high school basketball standouts -- to a Memorial Day tournament at Walt Disney World, where they will take on some of the nation's top AAU teams and talent. "These guys will give each other a hard time and make fun of each other the entire way down there for something that happened during (the) Lanierland (Tournament)."
Don't mistake the ribbing for dislike, however. As fierce as the Gainesville vs. East Hall vs. North Hall rivalry can be (and members of all three schools dot the roster), the members of the Wildcats -- which also include representatives from Chestatee, West Hall, Buford, Dawson County and Habersham Central -- are fast teammates on the floor and even faster friends off of it.
"They sell out for their high school teams, but after the games are over they're always there to congratulate each other and hang out with each other," Chapman said. "They're friends regardless of the outcomes. Most of them have played together for five or six years."
Chapman's Wildcats -- made up of rising seniors and juniors -- are also a pretty successful AAU squad and are maintaining the high standards set by previous Wildcats teams.
"Tons of area standouts grew up playing with the Wildcats," said Chapman, who has led the current squad in some fashion for the past six years. "Hall County has always been a big basketball community, and I think the Wildcats have played a huge role in that. Randy Coleman and Ken Wise started the Wildcats 10-12 years ago, and it's been a great way for local players to get better at the game and also get their name out there and get recruited by college coaches."
While some AAU teams consist solely of high-level recruits that may not even practice together, simply showing up to play in headline tournaments, the Wildcats are a tight-knit group that practices twice a week throughout the spring -- taking a break during June for high school summer leagues before meeting up again during July.
"We'll play 40 games a season," said Chapman, whose Wildcats went 30-10 last season in various regional tournaments. "We practice Tuesday and Thursday every week, and we work on fundamentals. Then we'll play one game Friday and two more on Saturday. If we win we'll play maybe three games on Sunday. It's a lot of work and effort."
The group also has plenty of talent -- though it is its effort and desire that often catches the eye of college coaches and recruiters.
"We've gained a lot of respect by playing well," said Chapman, who is also aided by his nephew and recent Piedmont College standout Josh Chapman. "All of my kids could play Division II, and some could go low Division I. They have talent, and they share the ball really well. But what has really gotten attention is when people seeing them selling out on defense, flying around, diving for loose balls, taking charges. No one takes charges in AAU play."
With the tournaments the Wildcats compete in their style of play is sure to draw the right eyeballs.
"We'll be playing a tournament in Myrtle Beach (S.C.) this June that guarantees 350 college coaches and recruiters will be there," said Chapman, who will also take his team to Virginia , amongst other locales during the July session.
That kind of exposure is a big reason for the Wildcats' existence -- along with simply improving the play of all of its members.
"If you don't play in the spring there's a good chance you won't get to play in the winter (in high school), unless you're just an exceptional athlete," Chapman said. "And the Wildcats give kids a local option to do that instead of having to drive to Atlanta."
With a number of Wildcats also boasting tremendous performances in the classroom -- "Hayden's No. 1 in his class (academically), Brian's No. 4, and Keelan's No. 2; they're all great students," Chapman said -- their tournament exposure could help lead to impressive collegiate futures.
"In one of the tournaments we just played a recruiter from Princeton came up and was asking about each of the guys' academic status," Chapman said. "That's incredible to think one of our guys could end up at Princeton because of one of these tournaments."
As rising seniors, most of Chapman's current team is in the midst on its final season of AAU play -- as is Chapman, who will "hang up his whistle" after this July.
"I've had a great time, but it's not easy; you don't get the grass cut or chores done when you're doing this," said Chapman, whose looking forward to the final charge and isn't concerned about the future of the Wildcats.
"Somebody will have the Wildcats going next year. It's a part of this community that will continue on."
Members of Chapman's Gainesville Wildcats
(In alphabetical order, high school also listed)
Hunter Atkinson -- West Hall
Hayden Chapman -- East Hall
Tyler Dominy -- Dawson County
Coby Durden -- Buford
Brian Edwards -- East Hall
Chase England -- Gainesville
Conner McCollough -- Habersham Central
Daniel McCravy -- East Hall
Keelan Passmore -- Chestatee
Ethan Smith -- North Hall
Reed Tipton -- Gainesville