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A look back: 2003-2004 season was magical for area teams

By Jeffery Armstrong

With the Mt. Zion girls basketball team's loss in the state Final Four to Collins Hill Wednesday night, basketball season is officially over in the Southern Crescent.

The 2003-2004 season has been another milestone year for Southern Crescent hoops. While no teams in this area have won state titles since the Morrow girls and the North Clayton boys in 1993, teams in the state have to respect the basketball that's been played in this area in recent years. This season marks the third straight year that a Clayton County basketball team has advanced to the state Final Four, while two Henry County boys teams were added to the state playoff mix.

In all, 11 area teams qualified for the state playoffs this season, with eight teams qualifying in the state's largest classification, AAAAA. The three lower-classified teams were the North Clayton girls and boys (Class AAAA) and the Union Grove boys (Class AA).

Clayton County produced five boys state-playoff teams, two for the first time in a few years (North Clayton and Riverdale).

Two teams perennially in the state tournament, Jonesboro and Morrow, almost didn't qualify for state this season. Jonesboro, the 2003 state AAAAA runner-up, suffered injuries to key players and inconsistency down the stretch in the regular season. But thanks to the hot shooting of the new county scoring champion Toney Douglas, Jonesboro defeated Northside-Warner Robins to qualify and was a steal away from beating current state finalist Tift County in first-round state action.

Morrow also faded down the stretch, having to defeat Mt. Zion in a play-in game just to make the first round of the Region 2-AAAAA tourney. Morrow then defeated No. 1 seed Stockbridge to qualify for state and finished by winning their second straight region title. Morrow took that momentum all the way to the second round of the state playoffs, losing to Savannah High.

Lovejoy won its third straight Region 4-AAAAA title, but once again lost in the state playoffs at Savannah State University's Tiger Arena, this time in the first round to Windsor Forest of Savannah. Long-time Lovejoy head coach Mac McConnell retired after the season.

The nice surprises of the year were the seasons the Riverdale and North Clayton boys had. It took Riverdale awhile to mesh under first-year head coach David Boyd, the Raiders jelled all the way to an upset of Johnson-Savannah in the first round of the state playoffs.

North Clayton was a bit inconsistent in the regular season, but it also jelled under a new coach (Steven Cole) in time for the playoffs. The Eagles were eliminated by the Butler Bulldogs in state action.

In Henry County, the Union Grove Wolverines made state for the first time in school history while the Henry County Warhawks qualified for the first time since 1987. Both teams had the advantage of having players who have been together for several years and had tremendous continuity.

But both teams made early exits in state play, however: Henry County lost a close game to Coffee in state first-round play while Union Grove lost to Buford in the first round.

In girls action, three of the four teams (Riverdale, Jonesboro and North Clayton) all are repeat state qualifiers. The newcomer of the bunch, Mt. Zion, made the best of their second state playoff run ever, advancing all the way to the Final Four.

Along the way, Mt. Zion upset the Riverdale Lady Raiders, a team that was one bad fourth quarter from playing in their second straight Final Four. The 2003-04 Riverdale senior starters were an accomplished group: they won three region titles, made the Elite 8 twice and made the Final Four once.

Next year, Jonesboro's senior class should have a similar resume'. The Lady Cardinals have made the state playoffs since their impact freshman class came in during the 2001-2002 season. This year, Jonesboro won the Region 2-AAAAA title and made the Sweet 16 for the third straight season. If it wasn't for injuries and transfers during the regular season, Jonesboro might have gone further.

The North Clayton girls clinched their second straight state playoff berth this year. Last season, the Lady Eagles lost in the first round, but this year they made the AAAA Sweet 16. North Clayton defeated Cross Creek before narrowly losing to Kendrick in the Sweet 16.