“I thought there would be more, to tell you the truth,” North Cobb coach Terry Gorsuch said.
Boys basketball in Cobb County, in the state’s highest classification, is being played at its highest level in years. While the Wildcats have continued their tradition of advancing to at least the elite eight, this is the first time in at least a decade that two county neighbors have joined them.
In fact, this is only fourth time since 2005 the county has as many as two teams in the final eight. Two of them were in 2005 and 2006 when Wheeler was joined by Kennesaw Mountain and South Cobb respectively. The other season was last year when North Cobb and Harrison made it that far.
And if Wheeler and Hillgrove prevail Wednesday, they will guarantee that the county will have a team playing for a state championship as they would face each other in the semifinals at Georgia Tech on Saturday.
This would be familiar terrain for Wheeler, which has won five state championships over the last twelve seasons under longtime coach Doug Lipscomb. The Wildcats (20-8) have a winnable game at home against Peachtree Ridge (21-9).
Hillgrove (26-4) is back in the quarterfinal for the first time in three years when it was still in AAAA and is seeking its first state semifinal appearance when it heads to south Georgia to face Brunswick. A victory would also allow the Hawks to equal its school record for wins in a season. Hillgrove won 27 games in the 2008-09 season.
North Cobb (25-4) is also focused on taking another step this season after coming up short in the quarterfinal a year ago against Savannah. Like Hillgrove, the Warriors will be traveling to south Georgia on Wednesday to face Kansas University-bound Brannen Green and the Tift County Blue Devils (25-4).
“The gym is going to be packed with a lot of Tift County fans there,” Gorsuch said. “The kids are in good spirits and know what is on the line here. They know they have a formidable opponent.”
Despite Saxon Steele being out for the season after getting injured in January, North Cobb is as healthy it can be. The Warriors were without Steele and Jordan Neff in its region tournament final against Hillgrove but Neff played at full strength in their 80-76 win over Morrow on Saturday, and he scored 11 points.
Neff, who signed with Florida Gulf Coast, should give the Warriors a boost alongside Lee Moore, Jon Beasujour and Dennis Young-Coleman. Moore led North Cobb with 26 points against Morrow.
Gorsuch knows Tift County will bring pressure and one of the keys to winning is not turning the ball over and giving them easy transition baskets.
Hillgrove is coming off a 72-63 win over Tri-Cities where Kyle Castlin fueled a 19-0 first quarter run to take command with a 19-4 lead en route to scoring 19 points in the game. Keith Ray also had 18 points as the Hawks (26-4) added to their first quarter lead before holding on to win.
Wheeler (20-8) has been taking advantage of its height during the playoffs with 6-foot-10 Daniel Giddens, 6-7 Elijah Staley and 6-6 Jalen Brown manning the frontcourt. Giddens finished with 15 rebounds in the Wildcats’ 96-52 romp over Meadowcreek in the second round, and Staley totaled 18 points.
North Cobb Christian (22-4) handled Mount Paran Christian in the first round of the Class A private school bracket but would prefer to play all four quarters when it heads to Athens Christian (23-4), last year’s Class A state runner-up, on Wednesday. The Eagles took a 17-point lead at the break but shrunk to eight in the third quarter when Mount Paran made a run.
But Elijah Weems stepped up late in the third and scored 11 of his 15 points in a 5-minute span to give the Eagles more separation.