y Zack Huffman
It is finally the point in the season where everything seems to slow down. With region tournaments already in the books, the playing field has been narrowed 32 hungry teams per classification and gender.
Forest Park is lucky enough to share the rare distinction of having two teams still in competition with both and boys and girls teams qualifying for the state playoffs.
Coach Steve Cole's low-keyed nature betrays a man who is dedicated to the success of Forest Park basketball.
"At this point they run on autopilot," said Cole as he watched his squad run through one practice drill after another without him having to say a single word to them.
A 1-4 start would be a discouraging sign for most teams. For the boys of Forest Park it was a stark notice that improvement was a necessary ingredient for Forest Park's state playoff hopes.
Only three players returned from last season's team after making it as far as the first round of the state tournament.
Those three upperclassmen were joined by two more seniors and five addition sophomores giving the team a dichotomy of experience and youth.
"I think it was a matter of the seniors gelling with the sopohmores and the sophomores learning our system," said Cole on the dilemma he faced in turning the Panthers into a competitive team.
Despite the uphill climb the Panthers have endured this season, Cole does not believe it made this season remarkable different from the previous one.
"Every year seems to be a rebuilding year," he joked.
According to Cole, participation in both the Henry County Classic and the Eagle's Landing Christian Hooptacular over the winter holiday break enabled Forest Park to be experimental with its line up, without sacrificing its region record.
"We were making a lot of young mistakes early in the season. It was our senior leadership that brought them along," said Cole. "We played in two holiday tournaments and that got us the time on the floor we needed. It didn't hurt our record as far as region play."
Coming into January, the Panthers were a team that was refocused and ready to attack the region.
Although they lost three games before the region tournament, two of those were decided by a single point as opposed to the 16-point deficit they averaged in each of their five losses before the break.
This Saturday, the Panthers will be looking to rebound from their region finals loss to Jonesboro, when they welcome last season's AAA state champs, Glenn Hills, into Forest Park.
"We get to play in front of our home town crowd in familiar surroundings," said Cole. "We get to sleep in and rest a bit while the other team has to travel about two hours. Hopefully that will give us the advantage we need."
Lady Panthers fight into state despite roster shake-up
Unlike the boys, the girls of Forest Park endured a dramatically different sort of season on their way to a second consecutive playoff berth.
The Lady Panthers jumped into their regular schedule with a strong showing, losing just one of their first eight games. After battling through the same two holiday tournaments are their male counterparts, the Lady Panthers were ready for a run at the region title.
Their run took an unfortunate detour early in January against Griffin, when a fight broke on the court resulting in the suspension of Kathleen Sengsavath, Olivia Lee and Nicole Wilson, who were all starters.
With their floor leaders stuck on the bench, the Lady Panthers suffered through a five-loss slump.
The slump was broken against Stockbridge when Sengsavath, Wilson and Lee were finally able to make their return.
Since then, the trio has been working get back into the flow of things on a team that had mature quickly in their absence.
Forest Park also welcomed the return of Kemecia Gleaton and Shatara Pease in January.
Gleaton returned to the school, while Pease finally overcame an injury that kept her on the bench for the first half of the season.
At that point the Lady Panthers had talent on their roster, they just lacked the chemistry they enjoyed in December.
We lost so many players from Griffin.
When they came back it was hard to get that same kind of energy we had. Including their win against Stockbridge, the Lady Panthers hung on as they rode a bumpy 2-3 finish to the end of the regular season.
In the region tournament, the Lady Panthers finished fourth, claiming a six-point victory from North Clayton, before dropping games to Dutchtown and Mt. Zion.
In the state tournament, the Forest Park faces Hephzibah, 3-AAAA region champ.
With a fourth seed it does not look like Forest Park's ride is going to get any less bumpy. They will have to hang on tight if they wish to compete in March.
"We need 110 percent from the whole team," said McGraw. "We need the entire team to actually have some input. If we come in as a team, we can actually win this game."