By Brian Paglia
When the final game ended of the Forest Park girls basketball team's season Wednesday -- a 61-55 defeat by Southwest DeKalb in the Class AAAA semi-finals -- there was no lingering in the locker room. Lady Panthers coach Steven Cole, resolved already to be brief, addressed his team and left them to pack up.
Of the players Cole addressed in the corridors of the Arena at Gwinnett Center, only senior Veronica Carmichael will be gone. The rest will return next season to be a group of six seniors, five juniors, one sophomore and one team with vastly new expectations. Forest Park had the luxury of anonymity against Southwest DeKalb. But in reaching the semi-finals, Forest Park's anonymity is all but eliminated.
"The real pressure comes next year," Cole said after the semi-finals. "Can you repeat what you did (this) year with only one senior?"
Even before Wednesday's game, Cole already had an eye toward next season. Offseason workouts are two weeks away. So are many sleepless nights, Cole said.
As Forest Park (24-7) cruised through much of its season, Cole could reason that the handful of losses were a product of youth, inexperience, complacency or some combination of each. But his daughter, Ashlee, who averaged 18.5 points a game, can now be considered one of the state's best guards. Jessica Anderson averaged 12.2 points and shot 47.4 percent on her three-point attempts. Keyona Allen developed into a reliable post scorer and shot-blocker.
The true measure of Forest Park's potential may be that none of those three were on the court as the Lady Panthers threatened to upset Southwest DeKalb. Cole had pulled his starters. In came reserves like sophomores Cabriesha Anderson and Cyndi Bivins and freshman Raven Wynn. They were able to cut Southwest DeKalb's 14-point lead with three minutes remaining down to four.
"They played just as well as we did," said starting junior forward Nikki Wilson. "Nobody's better than anyone else on the team. It's just the title of who's starting, who's not."
Cole made a point of giving every Lady Panthers player minutes at the Gwinnett Center so they could absorb the atmosphere. Should Forest Park navigate a reconstructed Region 4-AAAA next season against perennial state tournament contenders Riverdale, North Clayton, Jonesboro and Mundy's Mill, it will have this season, and Wednesday's game, for inspiration and confidence.
"Everybody got to play, so they know what it feels like," Cole said. "Next year, if we do get to this situation, maybe we'll perform a lot better."
Despite its 19 turnovers and a rebounding advantage that yielded few tangible results on the scoreboard, Forest Park beat two top-10 teams to reach the semi-finals. It encountered opponents with superior experience. It encountered a postseason stage virtually forgotten by its program.
Now, it encounters the weight of expectations.
And Forest Park players said they are ready.
"I think we're going to do great next year," Ashlee Cole said. "Overall, I thought our season was great."