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Forest Park, Dutchtown taking different paths

What a difference a year makes for one of last season's area Final Four participants, while another has continued to build on its success.

There is literally a new cast of players and coaching staff at Dutchtown as everything pretty much stayed the same at Forest Park.

While their paths have been different this season, both are still enjoying success on the court.

You have to like the attitude that new Dutchtown coach April Tate has brought to the team that had to replace five starters, including three Div. I signees. She refuses to call this a rebuilding year although only one player returns with any significant playing time.

"I don't like the term rebuilding, so we are saying that we are under construction," said Tate, who spent the last six seasons at Savannah High. "When you say rebuild, you are talking about building from the ground up. There is some talent here."

But they are young and inexperienced.

Tate nor the team is using that as an excuse. Heading into Friday's first round of the Chuck Miller Holiday Classic, the Lady Bulldogs are 5-2 overall. They have a shot at defending their holiday tournament championship.

A win would definitely be a confidence booster for a unit that starts two seniors, two sophomores and a junior.

By contrast, Forest Park is the complete opposite. They also made a surprising run to the state semifinals, but had a much younger group. Only one starter graduated from last season's team that pushed three-time state champion Southwest DeKalb before losing at the Gwinnett Arena.

The team is led by junior all-state candidate Ashlee Cole. Senior Keyonna Allen has signed with Presbyterian, while Jonesboro transfer Kierra Dennis is heading to West Georgia on a scholarship.

Freshman Kayla Potts has come in and been a big contributor to an already loaded team. Lady Panthers coach Steven Cole's defense-first philosophy has helped the team to a 7-1 record.

Coming into the season, the expectations were high for this group after a run through the state playoffs.

Perhaps no other team in the Southern Crescent area is under the microscope more than the Lady Panthers, who are ranked No. 5 in the state.

For some, the thinking is state finals or bust for this group of Lady Panthers since they have the experience and coaching to be a serious contender.

However, the Class AAAA field is crowded with Southwest DeKalb, Fayette County and Northwest Whitfield, and Redan and Chattahoochee since they have dropped down in classification.

But this is a confident team.

Forest Park will again test itself against out-of-state competition when it travels to Mississippi and Ohio for tournaments during the holiday break. The team played in Arkansas to begin the season and split a pair of games.

"We are excited about traveling during the holiday," Cole said. "It gives us a chance to see different competition."

After dominating the first half of the season against Region 4-AAAA competition, many will be glad to see them gone for a while.

Dutchtown could prove to be the sleeper among the teams in Region 3-AAAA, which is being dominated by Woodland. With each win, the Lady Bulldogs are steadily gaining confidence.

Many were along for the Final Four ride last season, and Tate is hoping that is motivation for this group.

"Last year, they had a taste," she said. "This season we just don't want a taste, we want to win it."

Come February, both teams will get their chance.

Derrick Mahone covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Herald Daily Herald. He can be reached at dmahone@news-daily.com.