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Same ol’ Forest Park? Not quite

Photo by Jerry Jackson
Lovejoy’s Morgan Jackson (left) applies defensive pressure against Forest Park forward Tamara Brewster in Tuesday’s game at Lovejoy. Forest Park won 52-40.

Photo by Jerry Jackson Lovejoy’s Morgan Jackson (left) applies defensive pressure against Forest Park forward Tamara Brewster in Tuesday’s game at Lovejoy. Forest Park won 52-40.

Nine months have passed since Forest Park’s girls lost to Fayette County in the Class AAAA basketball championship. A scant few weeks have passed since they lost to them again in the season opener.

Just because the results are similar, however, doesn’t mean the Forest Park of then and the Forest Park of now are. The Lady Panthers are in search of an identity, and perhaps Tuesday’s 52-40 victory at Lovejoy demonstrated that amply.

Though they improved to 6-1 overall, and 6-0 in Region 4-AAAA play, the Lady Panthers trudged off the court having struggled to get by.

“We were kind of mellowish,” said senior guard Ashlee Cole, who tied Lisa Pease for top scoring honors with 12 points. “We played flat today.”

The good thing about vastly superior talent is that it allows you to win, even when you’re not at your best. Forest Park scored four points in the first quarter Tuesday. When was the last time that happened?

“Never,” Cole said.

They bounced back for 21 points in the second quarter, grabbing a 25-19 halftime lead and gradually expanded it as the game wore on. But Cole’s father, Steven, the team’s coach, wore the unsatisfied expression of a man grateful his team won, but knowing how much better they can play.

This is a team that — when it wasn’t losing to Fayette County 59-46 in the season-opening Arrowhead Classic, or grinding out a 47-44 win over Jonesboro — was annihilating everybody else by no fewer than 41 points.

“You have games where everyone is not going to walk on the court hot, like we usually do,” Steven Cole said. “But that’s going to prepare us for the tournament, when it’s one and done. I don’t look at this game as a negative, but as a positive. No matter how many negatives there were in the game, it’s a positive in the ‘W’ column.”

Before they get to the one-and-done portion of the schedule, the coach hopes to find a defensive system that will play to the talents of the new players. Last year’s team had a balance of experience — five seniors, five juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen.

“This year, it’s all over the place,” Steven Cole said. Even some of this year’s seniors didn’t play much last season, so they can be expected to play younger than they are.

That makes finding a workable defense so much more important, because as the Lady Panthers’ defense goes, so goes their offense.

“Every season you get a different team and I take on my shoulders the responsibility of finding a system to work for them,” the coach said. “We’re still trying to find what works.”

With this year’s squad incorporating freshmen twin towers Breasia McElrath and Kanisha Tharpe (6 feet and 6-1, respectively), the Lady Panthers have tried at least five different defenses, with varying degrees of success. Steven Cole doesn’t want to surrender and just play zone, the way teams often try to play against Forest Park. But right now, it’s one big question mark in search of an answer.

“By the middle of the season,” Steven Cole said, “we’ll have an idea.”

By then, Ashlee Cole is persuaded that the Forest Park of now can be every bit as good as the Forest Park of then. Maybe even better.

“We should go to the finals again,” she said. “This team can be if we put the work in in practice. Last year, we were more athletic, more physical on the defensive side.”

Their upcoming competition may force them to rediscover their physical side. Over the holidays, they’ve got tournaments in Holly Springs, Miss., and at Holy Innocents’ on the north side of Atlanta coming up — both of which involve teams with reputations for toughening up their opponents. Steven Cole is certain the Lady Panthers will get more out of it than they have their routs.

“I think when you’re crushing teams by 40, it doesn’t mean what you’re doing is working,” he said. “I don’t want us relying on our athletic ability. I want us to rely on our thinking, the mental part of the game.”