Tuesday September 1st, 2015 8:15AM

Basketball: Vining, Lakeview seniors ready for one last run

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
GAINESVILLE -- There was a point last week when Seth Vining wondered if his retirement had already come.

Following a region tournament upset loss to Hebron Christian, Vining and his 10 Lakeview Academy seniors found themselves in limbo, unsure whether the Lions' accomplishments would be enough to earn a top 16 spot in the GHSA's Class A power ratings and the state tournament berth that came with it.

"We shot ourselves in the foot last week, and there was a lot of uncertainty because of that," said Vining, who announced prior to the season that the 2012-13 campaign would be the last in his storied, 37-year career.

Now the Lakeview coach hopes to make that suspense pay off for the Lions after discovering this week that, yes, there is more basketball in store for the Lions and Vining.

(NOTE: There is basketball left for a total of eight area teams this weekend. Scroll down for a complete look at this weekend's playoff schedule, including two games that will be broadcast live on WDUN AM 550/102.9 FM.)

"We're just glad we got the opportunity to play," Vining said. "This is a second chance for us, and the guys want to make the most of that. We've had three really good practices; we've been able to re-focus, and the guys are excited right now. That's the most important thing."

Lakeview (18-7) knows it will need its best performance if it is to get through Saturday's first-round showdown with Aquinas (20-6) in Augusta. After facing the Fightin' Irish in last year's first round -- a game in which the Lions dug an early hole before nearly pulling off the comeback in a 70-60 loss -- the Lions are preparing for a battle against an athletic foe that features two outstanding players in 6-foot-5 wing Ahmed Hill and point guard Michael Scott.

"Those guys are tremendous athletes; Hill is being recruited by everbody, and Scott is small and elusive," Vining said. "We had a lot of our boys play against them last year, and both teams should know what to expect."

Vining expects nothing less than the Lions best effort, especially considering that 10 seniors are also beginning their final state playoff run.

"You never know when you're going to play your last game, but you definitely start to feel that more as an upperclassman," said Vining, who added that he is glad to be taking this group -- which includes Austin Montgomery, Rick Valentine, Trevor Price, Ted Reynolds, Joel Larsen, John Cox, Will Kendrick, Caleb Faulkner, Thomas Paris and Hunter Oliver -- into their final postseason charge. ""It's a really unique group; I've never had 10 seniors. They've provided a lot of leadership. They're veterans. They've also been a joy to work with. They've done a lot for this program, and they've been a joy to work with.

"I can't think of a better group to go out with."

Certainly Vining has coached plenty of stellar squads over a span that includes stints at Gainesville Junior College (1983-85), Johnson High (1986-90), East Hall (1976-1982 and 1991-2004) and now Lakeview (2004-2013). Those years include 745 wins, 296 losses, four state championships -- 1979 and 1980 with the East Hall girls, 2001 and '03 with the East Hall boys -- six more state semifinal appearances and 15 Lanierland Tournament titles. Yet Vining looks as fondly on his time at Lakeview as does anywhere else, a stint that saw the coach lead the Lions to a 171-92 record (so far) and to the state playoffs in eight of nine seasons.

"As a coach that's always one of your goals, to get to state, and do that in every year but one is a pretty special accomplishment," Vining said. "I wish we could have gone deeper; maybe this is the year for that."

The Lions have advanced past the first round just once, reaching the Class A Sweet 16 in 2008, but Vining says his time at the school has also been about much more than what happens on the court.

"I left East Hall looking for a new challenge, and Lakeview gave me that," Vining said. "But before I got here I had no idea what a positive atmosphere there is here at this school, and it's been a great experience for my family to experience that. We've had success here, and it's been a great way to extend my career."

As for what will happen when Vining does step away and hang up his whistle for the first time since leading out the East Hall girls in 1976?

"I'm looking forward to having a summer to sit back and see how things play out," said Vining, a Tryon, N.C., native who came south for the job opportunity and is now part of the fabric of the community. "My wife, Cathy, has been a great part of my success here (including acting as a junior varsity coach for Vining's first East Hall girls team). I've got two sets of grandkids here that I want to spend time with. A year from now, I know I'll be comfortable with whatever I'm doing."

This week, however, that future might as well be decades in coming -- the focus is all on Aquinas.

And after a season riddled with injury, the Lions -- who have pulled off big wins over teams such as North Hall and Athens Christian -- will finally be at full strength. And Vining hopes that will make a difference for a team that has ridden a roller-coaster through the campaign.

"It seems like everything that could happen to us did," Vining said. "It wasn't until two weeks ago that we had everybody dressed out. We've played some good basketball, but we've also had some disappointments too. I think that's helped this team grow and develop."

Whether that growth will be enough to overturn Aquinas remains to be seen, but the Lions believe in themselves, and Vining says his team is in a good position.

"We're going to have to do a great job defensively; we're going to have to make plays, make shots, make free throws," Vining said. "We're going to have to play inspired basketball, and I think we're going to do that."

*-Class A starts first round this weekend

Friday's girls games
Class AAAA
Chestatee at River Ridge, 7 p.m. -- Radio: AM 550/102.9 FM

Class AAA
Elbert County at Buford, 6 p.m.
Dawson County at North Oconee, 7 p.m.

Class AA
Lovett at Rabun County, 6 p.m.

Class A
Calhoun County at Towns County, 5 p.m.

Saturday's boys games
Mays at Gainesville, 7 p.m. -- Radio: AM 550/102.9 FM

Class AAA
North Hall at Morgan County, 7 p.m.
Gordon Central at Buford, 6 p.m.

Class A
Lakeview at Aquinas, 6 p.m.
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