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North Clayton opens season tonight

By Jeffery Armstrong

The North Clayton Eagles and Lady Eagles basketball teams open their 2004-05 season tonight against a familiar nemesis - Region 5-AAAA foe Forest Park High. Game time is set for 7 p.m. at North Clayton.

The two county and region rivals meet for the first time this year and get the opportunity to play in North Clayton's refurbished gym, which looks so much better than before. Lady Eagles head coach Kimleon Turner hopes his experienced team will pick up where it left off last season; the Lady Eagles finished at 20-9 last year, advancing to the state AAAA Sweet 16 before succumbing to Kendrick 55-53.

"We're looking to take a few more steps this year," Turner said. "We want to win the new Region 5-AAAA and win state."

The Lady Eagles will start as many as four seniors this season, athletes who have matured together and played in several playoff games. As usual, the Lady Eagles will go as far as senior point guard and team MVP Ashley Johnson will take them. A four-year varsity starter and first-team All-Southern Crescent selection last year, Johnson averaged nearly 10 points and six assists per game. Johnson recently signed to play college basketball at Kennesaw State. Lady Eagles' leading scorer Jasmine Sykes (13.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg), an All-Southern Crescent 2nd team selection, had a great second-half last season and will be asked to step up her game even more this season. Senior guard Michelle Keith, the team's defensive player of the year, will need to shoot the ball well and play aggressive defense and senior center Shaleece Bradberry (10 ppg, 6.5 rpg) must provide more scoring and rebounding and stay out of foul trouble if the Lady Eagles are to advance far into the state playoffs.

The North Clayton Eagles finished 19-11 last year and qualified for the state playoffs for the first time in several year, where they lost to eventual state finalist Butler in the first round. This year, the Eagles will field an athletic and experienced team that can also boast a bevy of senior starters. Head coach Steven Cole hopes his team can play smart enough to compete in its new region.

"We worked hard in the summer and I'm pleased with the guys' progress," Cole said. "How well we do will come down to the mental game. We've got to be mentally prepared for every game in this region and we've got to make the fewest mistakes each game."

Cole looks for breakout seasons from senior guard/forward Jamal Bowers (15 ppg) and senior center Vincent Wood (12 ppg). Others who will be essential for the Eagles' success will be senior guards Shawn Christian and Dominque Mitchell, both of whom averaged 10 points per game last season. Senior guard Ricky Washington (6 ppg.) will also help stabilize the team on the court.

Senior Anthony Harvey, junior Greg Wingfield (8 ppg) and sophomores Kiara Weems (8 ppg) and Morgan B urnett will add depth to the Eagles' squad.

What a difference a year makes for the Forest Park Lady Panthers. Last year this time, they were 4-0 en route to their best record in years at 11-16; this year, Forest Park is 1-3 and faces a Lady Eagles team that won both its games against them last year by more than 15 points. The Forest Park Panthers (0-4) haven't gotten a win for new coach Lonnie Farmer, but they usually play the Eagles tough and may have a shot to win if the North Clayton boys lose their focus.

The marquee girls matchup tonight will be at Jonesboro High, where the North Atlanta Lady Warriors, No. 3 in Class AAAA, will take on the No. 7 Jonesboro Lady Cardinals at 7 p.m. Jonesboro will try to keep its undefeated record (4-0) intact tonight.

The other ranked county girls team, the No. 9 Mt. Zion Lady Bulldogs (3-1), will host the Mays Lady Raiders tonight at 7 p.m. Mt. Zion is coming off a two-point win at Mundy's Mill last Friday. The Mt. Zion boys team (2-2) will have its collective hands full in its game against Mays, the defending state AAAA champion.

Other area games include Morrow at Douglass at 5:30 p.m., Riverdale at Lithonia at 5:30 p.m., Lovejoy at Newnan at 6 p.m. and Fayette County at Mundy's Mill at 7 p.m.