By Zack Huffman
With grey clouds looming overhead, the soccer players of Forest Park spread out on the field for a game between the varsity and junior varsity teams.
At this points in the season, the fundamentals have already been established. Assistant coach Jonathan White watches the players compete for the ball, noticing where fine tuning will be needed in order to keep the Panthers among the top teams in region 4-AAAA.
"Hey coach, it's starting to rain," yelled one of the players as light drops of rain fell onto his maroon mesh jersey.
"That's OK," answered White. "This is perfect soccer weather."
With less than two weeks left in the regular season, there is no longer any room to take breaks. It is crunch time for the soccer teams of Clayton County.
The boys' teams of Forest Park, Jonesboro and North Clayton have emerged as the top county representatives on the soccer field.
Forest Park leads with an 8-2 record, having gone 4-1 in the region after losing to Ola. Although the Panthers are second in the region, they will have to defend their ranking against Jonesboro, who can possibly move from third to second in 4-AAAA with a big win against Forest Park and a victory against Mt. Zion.
After battling Jonesboro, Forest Park will have what is likely to be their biggest regular season game of the year against Dutchtown, who is currently undefeated in region play. A victory over the Bulldogs is likely to be enough to catapult the Panthers to the top of the region.
North Clayton (8-3:4-2) has perhaps the easiest task at hand, having already played the top teams in the region. The Eagles only have three games to go in the regular season, but they will be against teams who only have one win between them.
Last season, North Clayton was the dark horse contender in the region. After spending multiple seasons struggling on the field, the Eagles came out and played an undefeated regular season, only to lose in the quarterfinals of the region playoffs, keeping North Clayton just one game away from a state tournament berth.
This season, with many returning players, the Eagles have returned looking for a little bit of retribution.
"We're trying to move forward, this year we're trying to get further," said senior defensive stopper Michael Oni, who explained that last season's heartbreaking ending has served as fuel for the Eagles' competitiveness this season. "That really motivates everybody."
Jonesboro, who has often been regarded as the soccer team to beat in the county, has found itself struggling to hang onto to its position as a top team. Although, the Cardinals are still towards the top, the team finds itself firmly behind North Clayton and Forest Park.
After coming out of last year's region tournament as the sole county representative in the state tournament, Forest Park returned looking to keep the ball rolling.
Despite the loss of several key components to last season's successful squad, the Panthers have managed to stay successful.
According to White, Forest Park was able to reload because of the plethora of soccer talent that is present in the high school.
"We're a soccer school," he said. "We have so many people in this school who grow up soccer fans. These kids are soccer players."
While soccer is not as popular in America as sports such as baseball and football, according to White, a large portion of Forest Park's student body come from countries such as Mexico or the nations of Central America where soccer is the most popular sport.
"Given how important soccer is to this community, this is what you should expect from Forest Park," said White. "Every community has their athletes.
In this community they're soccer players."
Forest Park will play Mundy's Mill Thursday, March 26. Jonesboro will take on Southwest Dekalb the following day, while North Clayton's next opponent will be Stockbridge, March 31.