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  Today, we report from DeKalb County Basketball Media Day. Also, we break down each of the seven volleyball state championship matchups slated for Saturday.  Prepare for a busy weekend of softball and volleyball playoff action by visiting for championship brackets and schedules.

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

By Kyle Sandy

County's best gather for annual media day

DeKalb County has been a stronghold for state champions in basketball. It is now 13 straight years the County has won a state title after the Miller Grove boys and Southwest DeKalb girls continued the winning tradition by claiming the Class AAAAA championships, the Wolverines' seventh and Panthers' fifth all-time. On October 25, Tucker High School held Media Day highlighting plenty of storylines to follow in 2016-17.

The Doctor is in

Dr. Phillip McCrary returns to the sidelines at Columbia after spending 25 seasons (1988-2012) on the bench, compiling a 546-185 (.746%) record and winning five state titles. He joins a difficult Region 5-AAAAA that holds defending state champion Miller Grove, Southwest DeKalb, Lithonia, Arabia Mountain, Chamblee, Clarkston and Cross Keys.

"I enjoy the game and sometimes you just got to go back to what you really love," explained McCrary on why he decided to return to coaching after serving an administrative role as Assistant Athletic Director for DeKalb County Schools. "I like administration but I love the game of basketball. Once I was able to see that side and weigh the option, basketball outweighed the administration end."

Being able to view coaching from the opposite end of the spectrum has given McCrary a better understanding and respect for both sides.

"It's totally different. I see the error on both parts. I can see the errors that the administration was actually trying to do for the game of basketball in DeKalb then when I was on the coaching end, I would see the things that we would complain about what they weren't doing and they really were doing, so I can see both ends of it."

Panthers looking to get over the hump

Southwest DeKalb has become one of the premier programs in DeKalb County, amassing an all-time 714-548 record including a 25-6 season last year with a trip to the Elite Eight, but the one accomplishment that has eluded the Panthers has been a state title. Southwest DeKalb has seen their rival Miller Grove repeatedly hoist the trophy as the Wolverines have been the ultimate thorn in the Panthers' side. Housed in the same region yet again, Coach Eugene Brown continues to push his group to finally slay the dragon and hang a banner of their own.

"You just keep grinding. We've been working since I got here three years ago, building the program. It takes time to build a program if you're going to do it the right way," explained Brown as he has seen growth each season since taking over in 2014, increasing the Panthers' win total each year from 7 to 18 to 25 last season. "We feel like these guys know our system now and know what's expected of them and their ready to take it out with them onto the court. We got a lot of leadership, a lot of youth and senior experience so we are ready to go."

Arabia tries to climb the Mountain

Now in Year 8, Arabia Mountain is still in search of its first winning record. The Rams finished 10-16 in Region 6-AAAA last year, the best region in the classification, and now will try their hand in Region 5-AAAAA.

Coach Dedrick Whiting looks for his Rams to get out and run in 2016-17.

"We are probably going to play a little more up-tempo this year. A different style of basketball, more exciting. We are going to shoot the three a little bit more than we did last year. We aren't going to be as big," explained Whiting. "We are going to let our guys get out and go. And we are going to step up the pressure a little bit on defense. Our guys are going to be a little bit more of a VCU Rams aggressive type of team."

Presented by Ford, the Atlanta Falcons Coach of the Week program recognizes 12 high school football coaches across the state of Georgia for their hard work and dedication to making a difference in student-athletes lives on and off the field over the course of the GHSA season. The ninth winner of the 2016 season is Chris Parker of Pickens High School.

Chris Parker is in his 4th season as the Head Football Coach, after he served as the Head Football Coach at Chapel Hill High School in Douglasville, GA for four seasons. Coach Parker also is in his first year as Athletic Director. The AJC named Coach Parker the "Top New Coach in the State for 2008." When Coach Parker joined Pickens the Atlanta Journal-Constitution named him the "best new hire in AAAA."

Coach Parker was as humble and honest could be when asked about winning this week's award saying, "It says a lot more about my assistant coaches and the players than it does me." Parker added to that by saying, "Our whole community has helped earn that award here and have helped turn the program around.

The parents, kids, and coaches all come out and work hard. Parker was not shy about his involvement in the community when he spoke about the various things the school has done: Clothes drives, Food drives, Donations, and various service activities. Parker has made a tremendous impact on the community in Pickens county and one that I can personally vouch for. My parents live in Jasper just minutes from the high school and they even have talked to me about the efforts the school has gone to make sure the community is close knit.

Coach Parker talked about his time at Pickens and Chapel Hill and how he has never lost his way even when the teams have been losing saying, "It is about getting over the hump at some of the schools that I have been at that struggled. Some of them went 0-10 or 1-9, but we just pushed ahead and got a little better every game." The team started 1-3 losing on the final possession of multiple games but then went on a three-game win streak to make the teams record sit at 4-4. Coach parker talked to me about how the guys have stayed level headed throughout the tough season so far, "We didn't get down when we were losing, and we haven't gotten to excited when we have been winning. As a team, we know our goal of trying to win in the playoffs so until then we have to stay focused." Coach Parker and the Pickens county Dragons are a force to be reckoned with now and in the future.


No. 1 seeds load championship field
Ten-time state champion Walton and Area 4 rival Lassiter meet for the second time this season. Walton hosted the Trojans on Sept. 20 and scored a 3-1 [25-17, 19-25, 25-14, 25-14] victory. Delaney Hans is the only senior on Walton's roster, but a lineup of eight underclassmen standing 6 feet or taller combine size with all-state talent. Sophomores Reilly MacNeill and Riley Spurlin dominated the match against the Trojans, registering 27 of the team's 51 kills with a 56 kill percentage. Sophomore Gabby Gonzalez (6-foot-4) leads the team in kills this season with a team-high 370. Walton head coach Suzanne Fitzgerald is seasoned in championship success and maximizes the talent on her team with versatility and a variety of looks. Lassiter's defense will face a tall task stopping the Raiders and communication between head coach Greg Hodge and senior captains Libby Bochniak, Emily Thomann and Micah Ensor will be needed to prevent Walton's big scoring runs that have fueled their championship success.
Harrison rides the momentum of a dominant semifinals sweep over Johns Creek into its finals matchup with Alpharetta, which has been nearly unstoppable all season long. Harrison's last state title came in 2006, while Alpharetta is searching for the program's first. Destiny Stewart is Alpharetta's force at the net and is one of the most talented outside hitters in the state. Harrison attacks the net with a depth of hitters as well, but Katie Doering does the most damage. Both teams are aggressive serving the ball with ace percentages above 13 percent. This helps set up a great matchup between two outstanding defensive specialists with Harrison's Camryn Bihary and Alpharetta's Halle Wong. Bihary has shown her value in some of Harrison's most impressive wins this season. In the Hoyas' victory over Columbus on Sept. 10, she tallied a season-high 30 digs in their 2-1 victory. Wong received 38 serves and registered a season-high 28 digs in Alpharetta's first-round win over Creekview.
Buford's first volleyball state title came in Class AAAA last year, and the Wolves will look to defend it against McIntosh, which won state titles in 2007 and 2013. Two losses to Class AAAAAAA powerhouse Walton and a five-set loss to St. Pius mark the only instate losses on Buford's challenging 44-game schedule. That schedule did not include McIntosh, which lost as recently as Oct. 8 in a five-set match with Whitewater for the region championship. The Chiefs however, rebounded with four straight wins, including a 3-1 victory over Whitewater in the semis. With confidence restored, McIntosh brings a battle-tested and resilient group into the finals. Buford has the advantage at the net with 6-foot-4 junior Tatum Shipes. This marks Shipes third straight championship appearance and she dominated on the stage last year with 22 kills in the five-set win over St. Pius. Gabby Curry brings elite athleticism and defense to the lineup and senior Morgan Mitchell leads Buford with 9.5 assists per match.
Class AAAA provides the most decorated finals matchup in terms of past championships as ten-time state champion Woodward Academy meets five-time state champion Blessed Trinity. Blessed Trinity has won back-to-back titles, while the War Eagles look to end a five-year title drought and return to the podium. When the two teams met in September, Blessed Trinity scored a 2-0 [25-19, 25-22] sweep at home. Brenna Mako led the Titans with an errorless 22 assists to help offset a 12-kill performance by Woodward Academy's Lauren Harrison. Harrison is due for another dominant performance and the 6-foot-1 outside hitter has stepped up in the postseason with close to seven kills per set. Blessed Trinity survived a five-set marathon victory over Columbus in the semifinals, which should bring back memories of the Titans' 3-2 thriller over Westminster last year in the finals. Anna MacDonald and Carolina Cheney came up big for Blessed Trinity in last year's finals and that experience should benefit the two standout sophomores this time around.
Westminster returns to the finals in search of the program's eighth state title against Pace Academy, which looks for a storybook ending to a historic run to the program's first finals. Westminster took four sets to advance past North Hall in the semifinals, while Pace Academy punched its ticket with an emotional five-set victory over Lovett. Pace Academy and Westminster split the season series 1-1 and provide a winner's take all rubber match that will end Saturday's triple header at Holy Innocents'. The Knights swept Westminster on Aug. 20 before the Wildcats took a 3-0 sweep three days later. Pace Academy is a young team with sophomore Alexander Baker and freshman Ada Jane Agolli joining senior Summer Brown at the net. Westminster is spearheaded by junior Gabi Dolan, who leads the team with 4.3 kills per set. Mary Tucker and Maggie Mcswain lead a dominant Westminster defense and have combined for more than 100 blocks this season.
St. Vincent's and Coosa will play for the first time this season in the Class AA championship game, a stage that has been taken by Holy Innocents' the past two seasons. St. Vincent's last state title came in Class AAAAA back in 2003. Coosa will be playing in the finals for the first time in school history. Junior Taylor Roberts and senior Tori Overby lead Coosa's attack and have helped fuel this playoff run. Roberts smashed 24 kills in the 3-1 semifinals win over Rockmart, while Overby added 16 kills in their quarterfinals sweep over Rabun County. Roberts stands 6-foot-1 and gives the Eagles a constant presence at the net. St. Vincent's operates through senior Sarah Stewart at the net with Grace Friday and Mackenzie O'Hayer bringing more senior leadership to the Saints lineup. Junior Emma Margaret Wyman provides the defense in the middle and leads St. Vincent's with Friday, combining for more than 100 blocks this season. Junior Dylan Herb is a reliable setter and had a 42-assist match in the team's 3-2 win over Savannah Country Day to open the month of October.
Defending state champion Calvary Day will face off with Savannah Christian for the third time this season. Calvary Day has been swept the Raiders in both meetings. The Raiders won 25-22, 25-17 on Sept. 8 at home and followed it with a narrow 25-23, 27-25 sweep at Calvary Day on Sept. 22. In the second meeting, Savannah Christian was able to gain the edge in part to a 7-to-1 advantage in blocks with seniors Lauren Aenchbacher and Hannah White tallying three apiece. Calvary Day's Claudia Chisolm has been able to find success at the net against the staunch Savannah Christian defense and will need one of her best performances of the season to title the edge to the Cavaliers. After recording kills on seven of 21 attempts in their first loss to the Raiders this season, she led with 12 kills on 30 attempts. Chisolm was outstanding in last year's 3-1 championship victory over Landmark Christian, leading the way with a team high 23 kills on this same stage. 

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