By Brian Paglia
While the Forest Park boys soccer team entered Wednesday's game against North Clayton with an inferior overall record than its opponent, the Panthers were buoyed by a newfound confidence and urgency.
Confidence came from playing in the Stanno Invitational at Whitewater High School during spring break, where Forest Park encountered some of the preeminent teams from Alabama. Urgency came from a potential rematch with Dutchtown on Friday for the Region 4-AAAA championship.
With a confident performance in their 4-1 win over North Clayton, the Panthers (10-5, 6-1) seized control of their own fate. No matter the outcome Friday against Dutchtown, the only undefeated team left in Region 4-AAAA, the Panthers ensured itself no worse than second in the region.
By the time North Clayton (9-3-1, 6-2) managed its lone goal in the closing minutes, Forest Park had already made substitutions to rest their primary starters, who built a 2-0 lead by halftime and dictated the game's tempo.
"We played superb," Forest Park coach Kenneth Walkington said. "We controlled the game. We lost the shutout, but big deal.
"I think the preparation we had playing in that tournament with 13 guys who then went out and beat Lovejoy with 13 guys the next Monday, that set the stage for this team."
The Panthers were led by Osmin Maldonado, who wasn't on the team last season.
A year ago, while Forest Park went 12-3, won the Region 4-AAAA championship and advanced to the second round of the state tournament, Maldonado watched from the sidelines. A starter on the varsity team as a freshman and sophomore, he had failed two classes and was ineligible.
"Yea, that was hard for me," Maldonado said.
He worked hard to gain back his academic eligibility and might have lost a step during his time away. But he was effective Wednesday afternoon.
Maldonado got the Panthers on top early finishing a pass from Omar Lee in the opening minutes.
He added another in the second half, finishing a pass from Arturo Villalvazo in the box to put Forest Park up 4-0.
"Osmin has been a key player all along here," Walkington said. "He lost a little on his step. He was fast as blazes before. But now he's picking it up. He's catching up again."
In between Maldonado's goals, Israel Fernandez and Omar Cruz scored for the Panthers, who outshot North Clayton, 23-9, and got superb play from goalkeeper Adan Cordoba (four saves) when the Eagles mounted attacks.