By Rory Sharrock
Although the landmarks around town are covered with holiday decorations and Christmas carols echo through the radio speakers, the sounds of February playoff basketball will fill the air Friday night when the eighth-ranked (Class AAAA) Jonesboro Lady Cardinals visit the Forest Park Lady Panthers in an early-season pivotal Region 4-AAAA contest.
First place and local bragging rights is up for grabs between these neighboring schools as Jonesboro looks to extend its eight-game winning streak over Forest Park, which dates back to the 2004-05 season.
However, through the first three weeks of this season, losing is a word that isn't recognizable in Forest Park's vocabulary.
The Lady Panthers have been the symbol of perfection, standing at 4-0 and 2-0 in league play with region wins over North Clayton and Ola. As a result of this unblemished mark, Forest Park is off to its best mark under the leadership of head coach Lawrence McGraw.
"I hope we can be consistant. We basically have a team of one junior and onesenior. Every one else is freshman and sophomores. I think it's going to set the tone for the future. If they stay together and play together, I think we'll have a good season this year," said McGraw.
With the exception of its 49-47 win over North Clayton, Forest Park has dominated the competition, winning by an average margin of 14.6 points per game. Perhaps one of the main reasons behind this surge is the team's towering size. The Lady Panthers feature 10 players standing at 5'10" or higher, including junior center Shatara Peese, who is sidelined with a knee injury and inactive until January.
These skyscrapers allow for Forest Park to make it difficult to penetrate inside, thus forcing the opponent to take deep shots. These attempts often turn into long rebounds and transition fastbreak points for its quick guards such as freshman Ashlee Cole and senior Kathleen Sengsavath on the other end. This will be a key to victory as the Lady Panthers work to keep pace with the speedy Lady Cards.
"They're fast, big and plus they can play defense," said sophomore forward/center Nikki Wilson, who helps anchor the middle, setting up scoring opportunities for Cole and Sengsavath. "The main thing is to keep our defense up and everything else will come together."
Defensive pressure will be critical for Forest Park against the state-ranked Lady Cards.
While Forest Park has all the size, Jonesboro is small, but uses it's quickness to zoom past the defense en route to the hoop. The Lady Cards have turned the gym into their personal indoor track meet by playing an up-tempo game from the opening tip until the final buzzer.
Just like Forest Park, Jonesboro's wins have come in convincing fashion, except for its 60-52 victory over Dutchtown on Dec. 2. The Lady Cards record stands at 5-1 and 2-0 in Region 4-AAAA. The team's lone defeat came in the Mt. Zion Thanksgiving Tournament when they lost to Woodward Academy, 34-31.
Jonesboro features one of the best backcourt tandems in the Southern Crescent, however, it will be short-handed in Friday's game as point guard Drameka Griggs will be in street clothes nursing an ankle injury. Griggs, who averages 14.1 points per game, came up lame during practice this week and will be out of action until after Christmas.
Nevertheless, the team will maintain its usual game plan and head coach Jimmy Fields is confident that his players will come out with the same intensity that's been displayed throughout the young season.
"We're going to do the same thing. If they (Forest Park) beat us at doing what we do, then they're the better team. We're not going to change for them, they're going to have to change for us," said Fields. "Griggs is going to be out for a couple weeks, so we need people to step up. We'll see what kind of team we are. It's going to take a total team effort to get the victory."
Coming in off the bench and starting for the injured Griggs is junior Lakiesha Anderson. Anderson has seen significant action on the floor, however, this will be her first start as a varsity player.
"I'm excited about it. I'm confident and I know I can go out there and do well. I want to make sure I go out there and do as much as Drameka (Griggs) would do. I look up to her. She's like my big sister and my idol," said Anderson.
Tip off is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Forest Park with the boys game beginning immediately afterwards.