By Derrick Mahone
A few weeks ago, Stockbridge was sitting comfortably atop the Region 4-AAAA standing.
But after losing four of its last five games, the Tigers are now in a fight to hold on to second place. North Clayton is currently the region leader.
The Eagles are idle tonight before playing a non-region game against rival Riverdale Saturday. Stockbridge, which is 7-3 in the region, is a game behind in the nine-team league standing with Jonesboro currently in third with a 6-4 region record.
North Clayton swept Jonesboro in the regular season, but still have two games against Dutchtown remaining. The earlier matchup between Dutchtown and North Clayton was postponed because of inclement weather.
"I feel real good about the way we are playing right now," North Clayton senior guard Zach Bradley said. "We are playing like we want to win."
There is an extra incentive in winning the regular season title this season as the champion gets an automatic berth into the state playoffs. The regular season champion will bypass most next month's region tournament by being placed in the semifinals.
"This was a good idea for the coaches to help make the regular season meaningful," North Clayton coach Martisse Troup said.
North Clayton is hoping to reach the state playoffs for the first time since advancing to the 2006 semifinals.
The Cardinals lost a crucial game North Clayton Tuesday that could have forced a three-way tie at the top. After the loss, Cardinals coach Daniel Maehlman questioned the heart of his team.
Jonesboro is the defending region champion, and nobody is ready to count the Cardinals out of the championship race. Coming into the season, Maehlman had to replace seven graduated seniors. At times, he has two freshmen in the lineup with a wave of new talent.
"I'm not surprised they are near the top," Mount Zion coach Chris Jones said. "He does a lot with the less in this region. His kids always buy what he is selling. You can't count them out."
A combination of an automatic berth and region parity should make for an exciting finish in the region.
"I think it is still wide open," Mount Zion coach Chris Jones said. "There is a lot of parity in our region. We tell our guys to approach every game as if both teams have a zero-zero record. Everybody comes to play in the region each not. You can't rest on any night."
That is the message that Stockbridge coach Duane Kelley is preaching to his team. Kelley said his team might have gotten a little complacent when it was leading the region.
"We expected this to by a marathon, and not a sprint," Kelley said. "These next few weeks will be a character check for our team. You definitely find out what kind of character you have when your back is against the wall."
And how does Kelley think his team will respond?
"I like our chances," he said. "We are still in it. We stunk it up the last couple games because we didn't handle success well. It has been a humbling experience. We have to eliminate the mistakes, and the kids got caught watching Chris (Davis) making plays."