By Derrick Mahone

As his team prepared to play two-time defending state champion Southwest DeKalb at the Gwinnett Arena in the Class AAAA semifinals last season, Forest Park coach Steven Cole chatted with a couple of visitors outside his team's locker room.

Cole told the two gentlemen that this season was one that his team could play without a lot of pressure since they were a young group making their first long playoff run.

He said that next season would be the one where there would be pressure.

Well, it's that season now for the Lady Panthers as they enter the year with high expectations. Forest Park has four returning starters and the majority of its backups that give eventual state champion Southwest DeKalb all it could handle before losing 61-55 to end its championship hopes.

The Lady Panthers know the bull's eye is on their backs.

"There is going be a lot pressure on the girls," Cole said. "We put the work in during the summer. We keep the lines of communication open. We understand one game at a time.

We have to take care of our region first."

Forest Park is the last Clayton County team to win a state championship when the Lady Panthers brought home the 1970 Class AAAA title. At the time, it was the largest classification in the state.

While the team realizes the high expectations, the players have mixed emotions about the expectations.

"We are like a target, and everybody is trying to beat us," junior guard Ashlee Cole said.

"I'm kind of relaxed for the season.

I'm ready for the season."

Said senior center Keyonna Allen: "We have to live up the expectations that we had last year We have to work harder because people will be after us. There is going to be a lot of pressure this season because people will be trying to beat us."

Cole said he doesn't sense any complacency in the team. He said they are still just as motivated as they were last season.

"Being complacent is always a possibility," Cole said. "We will monitor the situation. How much we practice and how long we practice also plays into it. If we have good practices, we won't be out there long.

They like to get out early so they get real motivated quick."

While the run through the state tournament brought some notoriety to the school, players still think they have something to prove on a statewide basis.

"We still have to prove to people that we are a good team," Allen said.

"I don't know if they think last year was a fluke, but I don't think it has clicked to some that we are a good team."