By Brian Paglia
Forest Park boys basketball coach Steven Cole usually adheres to the same blueprint every year for constructing his team's schedule.
While other teams participate in Thanksgiving tournaments, competing against obscure teams they're not likely to see ever again, Cole keeps his squad in its home gym where it can focus on refining its play.
While other teams make their standard Christmas tournament appearance, Cole schedules Forest Park to play two in anticipation of the arduous second half.
Cole's blueprint was especially effective this season. The Panthers (12-8, 10-5 in Region 4-AAAA) have gone 7-3 since losing just twice in the Henry County Classic and Hooptacular basketball tournaments during Christmas break. They've quietly gone from a middle-of-the-pack region team to tied for first place with Jonesboro as they close out the regular season tonight at Dutchtown.
"We've been working hard all year," Cole said. "We started to improve at the right time in the middle of the year during the Christmas tournaments.
"We wanted to spend more time getting better at the beginning of the year; that's why we don't play a Thanksgiving tournament."
Cole said Forest Park has been buoyed by its senior leadership, which makes up three-fifths of the Panthers' starting five in Brandon McCarden, Lamont Jackson and Maurice Simpson.
But the dynamic of their leadership in the lockerroom, and on the court, has changed since Forest Park has starting winning more.
"We always had senior leadership, but sometimes it's just vocal," Cole said. "When you start to perform on the court, it gives you a little bit more credibility to speak.
It's more than just talk.
"Those (seniors) have really been putting in the time. Sometimes I don't even have to be at practice on time. They've already got it started when I get there."
While the luxury of Forest Park's senior leadership helped catapult it into first place - in a region seemingly dominated by junior-laden rosters - he still recognizes the unique parity of Region 4-AAAA this season as the region tournament approaches.
"We're just trying to stay focused on what we need to do," Cole said. "I mean, we like to be in first place in the region, but we know it only takes one to make it or one to go home. And that's why we've got to try and stay focused."
The next win for Morrow's boys basketball team will move coach Jay Livingston into first place on the school's all-time wins list. Livingston will pass former Mustangs coach Richard Simmons, who went 171-147 as head coach from 1977-90.
Livingston has a record of 171-172 since becoming the Mustangs' coach in 1996.
The win would also move Livingston into fourth place on the all-time Clayton County list behind former Riverdale coach Ken Ross (256), former Riverdale and Lovejoy coach Mac McConnell (228) and former North Clayton and Mt. Zion coach Rick Moore (214).
Livingston's chances of breaking the school record today look good. The Mustangs (11-12, 6-10) host last-place Chapel Hill (3-17, 1-14) at 7:30 p.m, a team they defeated 53-37 on Jan. 9.
By The Numbers
22 - The Jonesboro girls basketball team extended their winning streak to 22 games with their 63-20 victory over Ola on Friday night.
The Lady Cardinals (23-1, 15-0 in Region 4-AAAA) haven't lost since Nov. 22, 2008, when they fell 34-31 to No. 8 (Class AAA) Woodward Academy.