Photo by Brian Paglia
This season's Forest Park starters, and reserve -- Raven Wynn, Nikki Wilson, Veronica Carmichael, Ashlee Cole, Jessica Anderson and Keyonna Allen -- have the Panthers in the Class AAAA semifinals.
Everyday at practice, the Forest Park players are reminded of the school's past basketball success. Hanging from the wall in the gymnasium is the school's 1970 Class AAA championship banner.
The banner serves as a point of inspiration, but it also shows how long it has been since the Clayton County school was a major player on the high school basketball scene.
Popular daytime soap opera, "All My Children," was just premiering and National Public Radio was founded the same year when Coach John Smith led the Forest Park girls' team to a 49-44 win over Monroe-Albany on March 14, 1970 for the Class AAA title.
At the time, it was the Georgia High School Association's highest classification.
Since that championship run, Forest Park has not had much to celebrate in terms of girls' basketball.
Today, the Panthers take another step toward the 2010 Class AAAA title when they meet top-ranked Southwest DeKalb in the semifinals at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Tip-off is at 7 p.m., with the winner advancing to Friday's championship game.
Dutchtown will take on Northwest Whitfield in the other semifinal game at 4 p.m.
"We're real happy to be back in the playoffs and this deep," Forest Park Coach Steven Cole said. "Hopefully, it can bring some kind of community pride and school pride back to Forest Park."
While Forest Park has some history to pull from, Dutchtown is in the process of writing its own history. Dutchtown has only been in existence since 2004.
Prior to this season, Dutchtown has only been to the state playoffs once last season. The Bulldogs lost in the second round at home against Hardaway on a last-second shot.
This will mark only the second semifinal appearance by a Dutchtown athletic team. In 2006, the volleyball team reached the semifinals, where it lost to powerhouse Marist, which went on to win the AAAA title.
Dutchtown players and coaches say the school has been abuzz the last two days leading up to this evening's games.
"Yes, it has been pretty exciting," said Coach Angela Williams. "This just shows how much their hard work has paid off. I put this totally on the kids. It is their moment. I'm just here to guide them."
Both Cole and Williams said they are not overly concerned with their teams having stage frieght, since they have never been to the final four. The coaches said their teams handled themselves well in the quarterfinals at Fort Valley State University last week.
"I was kind of afraid last game as to how they would handle the pressure," Williams said. "We were very slow to get out of the box in previous games, but they played well at Fort Valley. I'm hoping this will carryover."
The players say they are ready for the atmosphere of the final four.
"We just need to do the little things right," Dutchtown guard Brittney Strickland said. "We have grown a lot throughout the season and since last year. We are definitely confident in Coach Williams' gameplan. We just have to follow what she says."
Forest Park and Dutchtown have brought a great deal of respect to Region 4-AAAA and the Southern Crescent area. This is the second straight season that a girls' team from the region has reached the semifinals. Last season, Jonesboro lost in the semifinals.
"I think everybody underestimated our region," Cole said. "We weren't the most talented region, but if you look at some of our teams, we had great coaches. All of them prepare for the game. They have their kids well-prepared.
"Most of the time, the team that's most-prepared is going to win. And when you're playing against a good coach, a coach that has their team prepared, it makes your team a better team."
Class AAAA Final Four
Where: Arena at Gwinnett Center
Tickets: $10, only GHSA passes accepted.
Teams: Dutchtown vs. Northwest Whitfield, 4 p.m.; Forest Park vs. Southwest DeKalb, 7 p.m.
Directions: Take 1-75 North to I-85 North to Exit 108 at Sugarloaf Parkway. Follow for about a mile to arena on the left.