Photo by Heather Middleton
FORT VALLEY -- Three years ago, Clayton County was in disarray.
The school system was on the verge of losing its all-important accreditation and parents were looking to move their children out.
Some athletes bolted, but many others stayed.
Friday, the accreditation mess seemed to be in the distant past as the county was sitting on centerstage of high school basketball in the state.
The Forest Park girls and Jonesboro boys are, as the kids will say, representing. With wins in the Class AAAA quarterfinals, two of the oldest schools in the county will make the trek to the Arena at the Gwinnett Center for the Final Four.
To Forest Park coach Steven Cole, this further adds to the healing process of removing that ugly cloud that once hovered only the county.
Walking to the locker room, Cole was thanked for giving the newspaper some good stories to cover this season.
"Clayton County needed some good stories," said Cole, who will led his team back to the Final Four for the second straight season. The sixth-ranked Lady Panthers will take on top-ranked Douglas County Wednesday for the right to play for the championship.
For Forest Park, the girls' basketball team has been a bright light in a win-starved athletic program. The once-proud football team has become a revolving door for coaches.
Several busloads of students made the trek down to the heart of the peach capital of the world to root for their team. Jonesboro brought four "spirit" buses, and the students were loud as the fifth-ranked Cardinals defeated Hardaway.
They danced. They cheered.
Even some students and players from other teams were there to participate in the experience.
This was a turnaround for the Jonesboro basketball program that was upset in last season's Region 4-AAAA quarterfinals by upstart Ola.
Three years ago, Jonesboro was in the national spotlight, but not for the right reasons.
When a video made its way onto YouTube featuring a Jonesboro dance team during some inappropiate halftime dance routine, it further darkened the county's reputation.
All of that is in the past. It is the present and future that has people beaming with pride.
The teams are hoping there is no end to their dream seasons, which will continue at least for one more game.
Forest Park is hoping to get past the semifinals.
"This time I want to win it all," said Lady Panthers senior Nikki Wilson.
And they will probably have the entire county behind them.
Derrick Mahone covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.