By Brian Paglia
Jonesboro's dominance over Forest Park in volleyball had been thorough. Since 2004, as far as the record books can show, the Lady Panthers had lost 12 straight matches. They had not won a single game. They were stuck in a miserable head-to-head history.
All that changed Tuesday.
Faced with a 16-10 deficit in the decisive fifth game, Forest Park stormed back behind the steady play of hitter Keyonna Allen and setter Kierra Dennis, who transferred to Forest Park after three seasons with Jonesboro. They rallied the Lady Panthers down the stretch to edge host Jonesboro in a thriller, 18-25, 25-21, 18-25, 25-21, 25-22.
In the Area 4N-AAAA finale for both teams, the win clinched first place for Forest Park (20-2, 5-0) and provided a potential championship preview for the Clayton County Volleyball Tournament this Saturday at Drew.
But it also assured another senior class wouldn't pass through without a victory against Jonesboro (26-10, 4-1).
"I think this year we were ready," Forest Park coach Antonio Wade said. "After that first game, I think the jitters went away and they started playing. I think they started to believe they could win."
"This is my old school and I really wanted to win," Dennis said. "Let them know that we could beat them, because we haven't done it in a long time."
"I'm so excited," Allen said. "If there was any game we wanted to win, it was this one."
Wade said the addition of Dennis' consistent setting provided the Lady Panthers with much-needed confidence, perfect for a game like Tuesday. Dennis' inside knowledge of Jonesboro also came in handy. She warned her teammates about Lady Cardinals senior Kayla Dowdell and her powerful hitting.
"I told them that (Dowdell) kills that outside," Dennis said. "She can kill it really bad."
Forest Park was helpless against Dowdell's hitting for much of the match; Jonesboro led the first game from start to finish, during which Dowdell had five aces and a kill, one of her game-high 19. Forest Park won the second game and extended the match with a gusty win in the fourth game.
But after withstanding a late rally to take the fourth game, Forest Park lost steam at the start of the fifth, falling behind 16-10 after a kill from Miisha Floyd (four kills, four aces).
An all-around display of solid defense, serving and hitting led the Lady Panthers back. Dennis' third ace down the stretch gave Forest Park a 22-19 lead and prompted a Jonesboro timeout; Allen (13 kills) had two kills and two tips; and the Lady Panthers had several crucial digs against Dowdell to neutralize the powerful hitter.
"We just knew that if we dug them up, we'd stop their momentum," Dennis said.
After Allen's final tap fell through a double block for the match-winning point, Forest Park's players and bench erupted in celebration. They anticipate another match against Jonesboro awaits them for the county championship. But they will savor this one.
"I'm just so excited for our girls," Wade said, "especially for our seniors. It's been four years that's basically been the same team. They battled and battled (Jonesboro), and we finally got over the hump."
ELCA wins twice: Eagle's Landing Christian defeated Strong Rock and Our Lady of Mercy on Tuesday. The third-ranked Chargers beat Strong Rock 25-5, 25-22 behind a combined 17 kills from Mara Green, Lauren Tekknip and Rachel Tolleson. In the nightcap, ELCA defeated No. 9 Our Lady of Mercy 25-15, 26-24 as the threesome of Green, Tekknip and Tolleson combined for 23 kills.