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Roundball in a new region
Elite foes await Dogs on 6-AAAA hardwood
Forsyth Central boys basketball coach Steve Barnes looks on during a recent practice. The Bulldogs' new region, 6-AAAA, is one of the toughest in the state. - photo by Jared Putnam

For Forsyth Central, a tough two-year stretch as a Class AAAAA school is over. So will the Bulldog hoopsters find life easier in Region 6-AAAA?

That remains to be seen, but Central boys coach Steve Barnes described the Dawgs’ new region as one of the best in the state, with Miller Grove, Tucker and Marist all preseason top-10 selections on the boys’ side in the Coaches Poll.

Barnes thinks a matchup with Chamblee out of the gate will give his bunch an idea of what to expect in region.

“We’ll find out pretty quick how we stack up with them,” he said.

Central’s basketball teams are relatively battle-tested entering the coming winter, and the coaches think that’s a good place to start.

“We’re encouraged this year, just by who’s back,” Barnes said. “[We’ve] got a good group of senior leaders and guys that have seasoned, so to speak. They’ve worked pretty hard, that’s encouraging, and the young guys are working hard.

“It’s been a pretty good start and [this team] just seemed to be ahead of where some other groups have been in the past.”

Barnes said the Bulldogs return “three-and-a-half” starters this year, with seniors Jeremy Long and Steven Davis returning in the backcourt, along with 6-foot-5 senior Doug Scherer in the paint.

Coming off a nice football season, senior Dustin Canon is also likely to see some starts after logging his share of minutes off the bench a year ago.

Barnes said the football players who’ve recently joined practice have brought a bit of a boost to their teammates, after an improved year on the gridiron.

Seniors Phillip Ray and Blake Densmore are also top-shelf options for the Dawgs, according to Barnes.

While the Bulldogs won’t have the blessing of size on the court, Barnes is preaching the value of hard work and believing in yourself.

So far, he likes what he sees.

“I think a glaring difference [from previous teams] is just some of the work that’s been put in. ... I like this group, so we’ll see how it pans out.”

On the staffing front, Barnes will be working with assistant Greg Dirst, who replaces Andy Martin on the bench. Barnes describes Dirst — a former head football and basketball coach — as his “co-coach,” and seems excited to have him on board.

As for Martin, he’s entering his first season as head coach for Central’s girls and also seems impressed with the effort his team has put in during the offseason. He said other coaches on campus have noticed as well, and told him the

Lady Bulldogs are among the school’s most industrious athletes.

“They’ve worked extremely hard in the offseason going all the way back to last May,” Martin said, noting that several

Lady Dawgs have shown up for voluntary weight and agility training in the mornings.

“I’ve preached to them from the beginning that we’re going to win games [through our work] in the offseason and, for the most part, they’ve really bought into that.”

The team returns three starters, but make no mistake — the Lady Bulldogs are a young team.

Point guard Rachael Tomlinson is the only senior in the bunch, with junior two-guard Caylin Davenport and sophomore forward Christy Hewatt also returning in starting roles.

Forward Holly Hildebrandt saw plenty of playing time in her sophomore year, and will be a top option this season as well.

“It’s kind of strange because they are so young, but really got a lot of minutes last year,” Martin said of his youthful veterans.

One genuinely fresh face that Martin points to is freshman Kayla Richards, who has mixed in well with the older girls, the coach said.

With junior Jamie Strickland hurt, the team is without a true center right now. Still, Martin said the strength of the team lies in the frontcourt.

“I definitely think that we’re a better inside team than we are outside right now. We definitely would like to improve on our shooting ability,” he said.

Martin said the Lady Dawgs have bought into his focus on defensive intensity, as well as his high-octane personality in general.

“I’ve always thought myself to be pretty intense, in practice and on the sidelines, and I thought coming in that I might need to temper that a little bit ... but really I found that this group of girls was kind of craving that,” he said.

Like the boys team, Central’s girls will clash with a region opponent right away, as both varsities are matched with Chamblee in the first round of South Forsyth’s Thanksgiving tournament on Saturday.

Martin doesn’t expect things to be a lot easier in Region 6-AAAA, with the Lady Dawgs trading AAAAA powers Collins Hill and Mill Creek for defending state champ Southwest DeKalb and perennial 20-game winner Marist.