Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- They will open the doors to the Albany Civic Center today, but it won't be just for a classic high school double-doubleheader, featuring four games (two boys and two girls) that should attract a large crowd.

They will be opening a doorway to the future.

"It will be bringing back the tradition of back when they played games at the Civic Center,'' said Westover's Brandon Hudson, who will face Thomasville tonight in the third game of the quadrupleheader. "We want to bring that tradition back.''

Back to the future?

"Those were great times,'' said Westover coach Dallis Smith, who has coached some big games at the Civic Center over the years.

It was part of what made Albany high school basketball so unique, and part of why high school basketball in the Good Life City is so good -- then and now.

"The Civic Center wasn't built when I played, but I remember when we played games there,'' Smith said. "We played some big games there and got big crowds. They used to play the Christmas tournament games in the Civic Center and that was part of what drew the out of town teams to come to Albany. It's a great idea to bring games back to the Civic Center.''

Smith can say all of that knowing he is giving up a big home-court advantage at 7 p.m. today when his Patriots meet Thomasville, a Class AA powerhouse that can play with any team in Georgia. There is even more on the line in the nightcap -- an 8:30 p.m. showdown between city and region rivals Monroe and Dougherty. Both have been ranked in the state's Top 10 this season, and Monroe is currently ranked No. 6 in the coaches Class AAA poll.

This big game just got bigger.

"This is what people have been waiting for,'' said Monroe coach Marquis Davis, who played in games at the Civic Center when he was a star at Dougherty High in an era when huge crowds attended big games, including state playoff games at the Civic Center. "People remember those games in the '90s when all four teams would play at the Civic Center. The crowds would be enormous every night. A lot of people are talking about it, saying, 'We heard you're going back to the Civic Center and this is what we've been waiting for.' I think it's good for the community.

"That was a great time for basketball. And I think that's what the superintendent and assistant superintendent are trying to do, open the door for athletics in Dougherty County again.''

The move to put games back in the Civic Center comes from Dougherty County School Superintendent Joshua Murfree and assistant superintendent Kenneth Goseer, both of whom wanted to bring back the glory of those golden years. They believe big crowds will support the games and also believe it will showcase basketball in Albany.

Davis remembers that feeling of playing in front of big crowds at the Civic Center and he has coached in an era when standing-room-only crowds have showed up for big rival games and countless fans were turned away from the packed gyms. Others simply don't go to those games now.

"Some people can't endure the gyms,'' Davis said. "I've heard people say that, and those people who won't go to the games in the gyms will go to the Civic Center. People have told me they just can't go to the games in the gym. Moving games to the Civic Center opens up a whole other fan base. People will come to an event versus coming to just a game. It is an event.''

Monroe-Dougherty is always a huge game, and even bigger now because Herald No. 4 Dougherty has emerged as a state power and Monroe is coming off a big upset loss Tuesday to Worth County, and will have even more to prove in front of the big crowd.

But these games take on a new meaning.

"I think it's good for Albany. We haven't been there in a while,'' Dougherty boys coach Donald Poole said. "I'm thinking that a lot of people will be there. A lot of people should be there. They need to come out and support high school basketball. It's a good thing for the community.''

There are no advanced ticket sales. All tickets will be sold at the Civic Center, but they are at a bargain price. Tickets for a normal, regular-season game are $5 for students and $6 for adults, but tonight's tickets are $8 for all four games.

And the contests should be classics. Dougherty's Trojans (6-1) are 2-1 in the Region 1-AAA race, right behind Westover (3-0), the only team to beat Dougherty this season. Monroe, which started the season at 10-0, is suddenly 10-2 and 2-1 in the region race, thanks to Worth's big upset.

Monroe, The Herald's No. 1 team, is giving up the home court advantage, but Davis said it was worth it.

"I'm willing to make the sacrifice for the benefit of the community,'' Davis said. "It's been a number of years since we've had a game there.''

There seems to be a debate about when the last game was played in the Civic Center, but it's believed the last game was in 2004 during the Region 1-AAA tournament.

Assistant City Manager Wes Smith said he's heard nothing but positive feedback about moving the games to the Civic Center and expects somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 fans - but wouldn't be surprised if 6,000 or more showed up.

"I can remember the days when (former Westover and Cincinnati star and NBA player) Dontonio Wingfield would play there and that place was packed," Smith said. "We're talking 9,000 people filled to the rafters. It was exciting."

Wingfield's son, Daquan Green, is now a star at Westover, and even though things have changed, Albany is still the king of basketball in this part of Georgia.

"This is the best Class AAA region in the state,'' said Crisp County boys coach Terry Smith, whose team took Monroe to two overtimes and played Dougherty close before falling, 77-68, on Tuesday.

Three of the top Class AAA programs live side-by-side in Albany. Westover made it to the Final Four last year while Dougherty made it to the Elite 8. Monroe, which was ranked No. 1 in the state for a long stretch last year, lost in the postseason playoffs at LaGrange by one point, and LaGrange went on to play for the state title.

That's why Murfree and Goseer wanted to bring games back to the Civic Center, in part to showcase that talent, and to allow more fans to see big games.

When Dougherty and Monroe played last season it was standing room only at every game, and when Westover played Monroe, countless fans were turned away because the gyms were packed to the rafters and the fire marshal simply wouldn't allow anyone else in the gym.

All four games should go down to the wire.

Westover has The Herald's top-ranked girls team and enters Friday's game unbeaten at 10-0 against a powerhouse Thomasville team. Those two will tip off at 4 p.m., followed by a 5:30 p.m. showdown between city and region rivals Monroe and Dougherty.

Monroe's girls, who made noise in the state playoffs last year, have one of the top teams in Southwest Georgia, but Dougherty has emerged as a force and The Herald No. 4 Lady Trojans enter the game with a seven-game winning streak and a 9--2 record. They are 2-1 in Region 1-AAA with their only loss coming to Westover. Both Dougherty and Monroe are 2-1 in the Region 1-AAA race.

That's what bothers Monroe girls coach Cheryl Cheeks, who doesn't like giving up a home game because when she meets Dougherty again the game will be -- as it's scheduled right now -- at Dougherty.

"It will be a great opportunity for Albany to showcase basketball,'' Cheeks said. "But this is a rival game and a region game and we're tied with Dougherty in the region and we're losing a home game. I feel like our home crowd motivates our girls. But this is a different environment. I'm hoping the young ladies will be able to come out and do what they normally do.''

No one knows how many fans will show up tonight, or how many will be there during the early games.

"I think it will be thick (with people) during the girls game,'' said Dougherty forward Montavious Heath, who is looking forward to playing in the Civic Center.

"We will be ready to play in the Civic Center,'' said Dougherty Super 6er McArthur Gaines, who scored 28 points Tuesday -- his third 28-point night in seven games this season. "I don't think we will be (intimidated by the big crowd or the atmosphere), because we played in the state tournament last year and we played at Columbus State (in the Elite 8) and this will be like that.''

The coaches all said playing in this big atmosphere can only help their teams later in the playoffs, and even the players understand that.

"It will help us,'' said Westover center Joseph Harrell, who remembers the atmosphere well in Columbus and Macon last season. "Playing in this kind of atmosphere will show you where you are and will help you focus. The lights, the crowd, the big space.

"They say you've got to love it. You will be playing in front of all of Albany. It makes it special.''