By Brian Paglia
As the Forest Park volleyball team warms up before matches, they are full of dance moves and inside jokes. In between serves during a match, they are full of quick comedic insights on plays.
From the outside looking in, Forest Park's loose demeanor appears unconventional. Conventional wisdom says stoic focus on the task at hand brings out a player and team's best performance.
"Most people think that when we joke that you can't play for real," senior outside hitter Nikki Wilson said, "but I think it helps our team play better. We're all friends. When we get to laughing before the game, coach doesn't even notice."
Forest Park's jovial ways have worked. The Lady Panthers are 17-1 after a 25-18, 25-15 victory at North Clayton in an Area 4N-AAAA match Tuesday. Their lone loss came Aug. 26 against Newnan. They've lost just four of 41 games this season.
Wade said the team's attitude has improved dramatically over last season, his first as head coach. The Lady Panthers finished 17-12, but missed the Class AAAA playoffs.
"It was a struggle," Wade said, "because their attitude was not in line with what I wanted. This year, we're senior heavy. I think they know it's their last go-around, their last hurrah. They've got a better attitude."
Wilson said: "Off the court we are a bunch of sisters. Even throughout the school day and everything, we're always together. We talk to each other and we work harder in practice."
Forest Park also got a boost from the addition of setter Kierra Dennis, who transferred from Jonesboro. Setter Amy Sengsavath returned to the team after decling to play last season and immediately cracked the starting lineup. Wade said junior hitters Lisa Pease and Kristin Pittman have made dramatic improvements from last season.
But, as the Lady Panthers have coasted through the regular season, Wade said they have been prone to complacency.
Recently, Wade made them run for 30 minutes after arriving late to a practice. Players looked at him incredulously. They were 16-1 at the time.
"When we win county, when we win the area, when we're in the state playoffs, I'll start smiling," Wade said. "Am I happy that we're 16-1? Yea, I love winning. But, I'm not satisfied. And I want them to have that same attitude."
Players have caught on. Wilson said focus will be the most critical factor during the final stretch of the regular season. The Lady Panthers want to measure themselves against county and area rival Jonesboro, who has long been the class of the county in volleyball.
"We have to get over that game," Wilson said. "It seems like every time we play them we freeze up. But, now we've been talking about it and it seems like everybody is ready."
They must be. Forest Park will surely be tested in the Area 4-AAAA tournament that begins Oct. 7 at Woodland against annual playoff contenders Dutchtown, Ola, Union Grove and Woodland.
"We're going to start getting to the meat of our schedule near the end," Wade said. "That's when we'll see if we're one of the top teams in the state."
GOOD COMPANY: Eagle's Landing Christian (11-8, 2-0 Area 3S-AA/A) isn't the only strong team in its area. The No. 5 Lady Chargers are one of three teams fromArea 3-AA/A ranked in the Gasports.com Coaches Poll -- ELCA, Our Lady of Mercy (No. 9) and Landmark Christian (No. 10).
GOOD RACE: Two games separate three teams in Area 4S-AAAA. No. 10 Ola (23-8, 6-0) holds a one-game lead over Union Grove (21-10, 5-1) and a two-game lead over Woodland (12-7, 5-2).