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Basketball: Horizon Christian boys chasing third straight state title
Horizon Christian’s Alex Dahlberg (from left), Michael Gul, Mason Bierster and Pable Marerro embrace the challenge of trying to lead the Warriors to a third straight GICAA Division I state championship. - photo by Lily McGregor Photography

Horizon Christian Academy’s boys basketball team has learned to win state titles in multiple ways. The Warriors’ back-to-back GICAA Division I-A state championships the past two seasons have come with charm and grit – a perfect 22-0 run in 2016 and a bumpy-but-rewarding 17-6 finish last season.

What could a third straight state title look like?

Horizon isn’t dwelling on that entering this season.

“Obviously, everyone wants to win a state championship, say you’re a state champion,” senior guard Pablo Marerro said, “but mainly it’s (focusing on) just getting everybody better.”

Added third-year head coach Damon Taylor: “We want to start by making sure we get these guys better every single day. That’s our main goal.”

Yes, the Warriors are aware of the expectations that accompany its current run of success. “You’re no longer the hunter,” Taylor said. “You’re the hunted.” But the Warriors are preoccupied with the work of recalibrating their approach on the court.

Horizon Christian Academy boys basketball players Pable Marerro (clockwise, top left), Mason Bierster, Michael Gul and Alex Dahlberg pose for a portrait photo Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. - photo by Lily McGregor Photography

Horizon’s biggest challenge is replacing guard Daniel Durnwald and forward Andrew Leonard. Durnwald was a gutsy leader who averaged 13.1 points a game and managed 15 points in last season’s state championship victory despite being the focus of the opponent’s defensive effort. Leonard averaged 13.9 points a game and was the team’s dominant rebounder.

“You can never replace Daniel Durnwald and Andrew Leonard,” Taylor said.  

Still, Horizon returns six key contributors from last season, led by point guard Alex Dahlberg, who had a breakout state playoff, including a game-high 20 points in the championship game. Marerro and Ryan Stevens were two of the team’s top three outside shooters last season. Mason Bierster and Michael Gul are versatile forwards. Evan Reece and Shawn Woods should provide much-needed depth.

It's a seasoned group, one that has come through Taylor’s program since he took over before the 2015-16 season.

“They got a lot of gigabytes up there,” Taylor said.

And the team is willing to test itself again as it did last year. The Warriors open against Mt. Bethel and Creekside Christian, the two teams who set the Warriors back 0-2 to start last season and eventually played for the GICAA Division II state championship.

Even more enticing for the program is a late-season match-up against Pinecrest Academy, the Forsyth County private school that is a Georgia High School Association member. The Paladins will be the Warriors’ final opponent before the region tournament serving as a good barometer for the team before postseason play but also a chance for the county’s boys basketball dynasty to enhance their reputation.

“Around the county, people say, ‘Oh, you don’t play anybody. The competition’s not that good,’” Marerro said. “But it doesn’t matter who we play. We’re going to play our ball every game, go out there and do our thing.”