Tuesday June 25th, 2019 7:50AM

Basketball: Region battles begin in earnest this week

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

With the 2018-19 basketball campaign now firmly underway, the heart of the season will begin for many northeast Georgia area programs as region schedules get started this week.

Regions 7-3A, 8-3A, and 7-4A all will open region play this week with a full slate of games. Regions 8-A and 8-2A will begin next week with Regions 8-5A and 8-6A not opening region schedules until after the New Year.

There have been more than a few pleasant surprises so far during the non-region schedule as well.

On the boys side Chestatee, which won just seven total games last season, is already off to a 6-1 start. Riverside Military Academy is also 6-1 in the early going after coming off just an 11-win campaign last season. Commerce, which won just four games last year, is off to a 2-2 start.

On the girls side, Lumpkin County, which went just 9-15 last year, is off to one of its best starts ever with a perfect 7-0 mark. The Jefferson girls, despite an Elite 8 showing in Class 4A last year, sport a new coach and several new players. Yet, the Lady Dragons are off to a 5-0 start under new coach Greg Brown. Banks County also is undefeated in the early going at 6-0, as is defending Class 5A state champion Buford (5-0) despite a ton of personnel turnover from graduation. Cherokee Bluff, the newest Hall County school, is 4-2 so far in its inaugural campaign. Johnson, which went winless in 2017-18, already has notched a win in the opening weeks.

Chestatee boys coach Kevin Strickland, now in his third season for the War Eagles, said it has been a fun and satisfying beginning. The War Eagles have not made the playoffs in 11 seasons and Strickland said they may have the pieces in place for their first playoff run since the days of Parker Smith.

However, they open Region 7-4A play Tuesday against what is expected to be a tall, long, talented Denmark group on the road.

“It’s been a lot of fun the first few weeks. To be honest, I’m not all that surprised at our good start. We have a lot of guys on this team with high basketball-IQs that understand what we’re trying to do and what they need to do,” Strickland said. “A year more in the system and a lot of smart guys out on the court has been the real difference. Denmark will be a huge test for us. If we can go there and get a win I think will show that we can challenge for a (playoff) spot this year. That’s our goal.”

But Chestatee, which has knocked off Class 5A teams Loganville and Johnson, does have senior sharp-shooter Cameron Gwynn, who is already on pace to break Smith’s all-time 3-point single-season record -- not to mention four other bombers in senior Will Cantrell and juniors Brenton Nicholson, Jonah Bull, and Kyle Bowmar. Chestatee averages taking 33 3-pointers compared to just 23 2-point shots in a game.

“We’re hitting (3-pointers) at about a 40 percent clip and putting a lot of pressure on the other teams to try and keep up,” Strickland said. “Cameron can fill it up like Parker did but I think what is making us better this year is that we have a lot of guys who can shoot it behind the arc and we’re not turning the ball over. Jonah has stepped up and gives us a good leader on the court and the other guys are just making good decisions.”

For the Lumpkin County girls, coach David Dowse, just in his second season in Dahlonega, has a small group in number and size off to one of the program’s best openings ever. However, the Lady Indians have just eight on the roster and one, senior Raven Chester, has been out the entire season rehabbing a knee injury.

The hot start is a product of the environment Dowse was working on implementing last year.

“We worked on some culture change in the program and that takes time,” Dowse said. “The group we have on the roster showed they were willing to accept accountability -- for the team, each other, the school -- and be committed to the program. They’re also a year into our new system and you’re seeing the hard work they’ve put in during the offseason start to pay off.”

Five seniors dominate the roster, but sophomores Isabel Davenport and Mackenzie Caldwell have stepped into primary roles to give the Lady Indians a deep starting five as well as a deep, experienced bench.

“This is a pretty talented group overall,” Dowse said. “All five girls on the court at any time can score. Isabel has the potential to be a special player but not because she can score, which she can. She’s lowered her turnovers, increased her assists, she’s become a vocal leader on the court. That is where she has made the most progress which is making her an even better player.

“From what I saw during the spring, summer, and fall from these kids, I’m not really surprised with our start. My job has been trying to to find ways to give them a chance to be successful. So far so good.”

But Dowse also knows that with Tuesday’s Region 7-3A opener against a good Cherokee Bluff team (4-2) the weight of playoff expectations begin.

“There are no easy games in this region,” he said. “We start a tough road and every game is going to be tough. It’s important for us to get off to a good start. It should be a very interesting game based on the contrast in styles. They have a lot of size and we don’t. How they attack us and how we’re able to try and exploit their size will be fun to watch.”

Schedule for Tuesday, Dec. 4
(Games listed in alphabetical order by visiting team)
Cherokee Bluff at Lumpkin County*
Chestatee at Denmark*
Commerce at Galloway
Dawson County at Fannin County*
East Hall at North Hall*
Flowery Branch atWest Hall*
Greater Atlanta Christian at Gainesville
Hart County at Jackson County*
Jefferson at Monroe Area*
Johnson at Oglethorpe County
Rabun County at Riverside Military (boys only)
Towns County at Tallulah Falls
White County at Blessed Trinity*

(* -- denotes region contest)

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