Photo by Heather Middleton
A year ago, the Forest Park girls' basketball team scripted a surprising run through the Class AAAA tournament to the semifinals for the first time since 1970. The Lady Panthers lost to eventual state champion Southwest DeKalb, but their success awoke the school's student body and surrounding community.
Now, with sixth-ranked Forest Park back in the semifinals today against top-ranked, and undefeated, Douglas County (30-0), the Lady Panthers and their fan-base return to the Gwinnett Arena for a 4 p.m., game with unfinished business.
"We have excitement," Forest Park Principal Derrick Manning said, "but our girls' basketball team is very, very focused. I believe they kind of knocked on the door last year, and they weren't real satisfied with that feeling. They've been working so hard to accomplish the ultimate feat in being a state champion.
"This year, it's like business."
"We know what that feels like," said Forest Park senior, Keyonna Allen, "so we definitely don't want to have to go through that again."
Both Forest Park, and the Jonesboro boys' team — which will play nationally-ranked Miller Grove at 5:30 p.m. — went through the season in business-like fashion.
The Lady Panthers (25-5) returned virtually their entire roster from last season's semifinal team — led senior forwards, Nikki Wilson and Allen, and standout junior guard, Ashlee Cole — and didn't lose a game to an in-state opponent. They won the Region 4-AAAA championship, and are on an 18-game winning streak.
Jonesboro (28-3) cruised through the regular season, thanks to the steady play of two Division I signees in Rasham Suarez (Georgia Southern) and James White (Arkansas-Little Rock), and a bevy of talented sophomores. The Cardinals captured the Region 4-AAAA championship for the second time in three seasons and have won 16 consecutive games.
Jonesboro is back in the semifinals for the first time since 2003, when the Cardinals eventually lost to perennial powerhouse, Wheeler, in the state championship.
Both teams have felt the support of their schools and communities throughout the state tournament. For the quarterfinal round Friday at Fort Valley State, both Forest Park and Jonesboro brought large crowds. Jonesboro filled four "spirit buses" with fans, while Forest Park brought two of its own.
"That was a big boost for us," said Jonesboro's White. "It just gave us confidence. It felt like it was a home game, instead of an away game."
Manning said Forest Park won't be coordinating "spirit buses" for today's game, but he expects fans from Clayton County to make their presence known at the Gwinnett Arena, even as the school begins the home stretch in preparation for the Georgia High School Graduation Test.
"The general student body is very, very excited," he said. "They're making plans and trying to get to the Gwinnett Arena any way possible. I suspect we'll have a really good crowd there."