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RAPID RISE

After tough times in 2011, these teams found a way to get better ... fast

Photo by Brian Paglia
Catcher Michael McClellan and Union Grove finished below .500 last season, but are now ranked No. 7 in Class AAAA.

Photo by Brian Paglia Catcher Michael McClellan and Union Grove finished below .500 last season, but are now ranked No. 7 in Class AAAA.

Sometimes, the difference between incompetent and competitive is just one player. Sometimes, it’s eight or nine. But, whatever it takes, several teams in the Southern Crescent have made dramatic one-year improvements.

Here’s a look at those teams in Clayton and Henry counties that have made the biggest improvement from 2011 to now, with still a few weeks left in the regular season.

Drew girls track

2011 county meet: 7th out of nine teams

2012 county meet: 1st out of nine teams

The difference: The Lady Titans had some catching up to do to equal some of the success of the boys’ team. With a first place finish at this season’s county meet, the Lady Titans captured its first track and field championship of any kind. In 2011, the team only scored 46 points and had one individual to place runner-up in two events. This season, in scoring 99 points, two individuals — Ghnerya Hicklen (200-meters) and Shian Williams (discus) — won events. The 400 relay team also won a county championship. Tiffany Barnes (200) and Vernezia James (100 hurdles, long jump and triple jump) placed as runner-ups.

Forest Park

girls tennis

Last year: 4-7 This year: 8-2

The difference: Sometimes, the climb from mediocre to good is much smaller than it appears. A year ago, the Lady Panthers had a tough time pulling out close matches. They were on the wrong side of those pesky 3-2 matches too many times — four times, to be exact. It’s been a different story this season. Forest Park is 3-0 in matches decided by a 3-2 score, two of which have come on its current five game winning streak. The Lady Panthers sit tied for second in Region 4-AAAA with much more at stake than last season.

Locust Grove girls soccer

Last year: 6-9-2 This year: 8-3-0

The difference: The Lady Wildcats team that is 8-3-0 and making a push for the Class AAA tournament out of Region 4 is a young one. There are no seniors on the roster, just freshmen and sophomores, with a few juniors sprinkled in. A year ago, Locust Grove was even younger. Probably too young. Coach Kelly Barrow has noticed better communication and team chemistry this season, and the results have been steady. Locust Grove has won six of its last eight games after stringing together consecutive wins just once last season.

Mount Zion

boys tennis

Last year: 0-7 This year: 5-5

The difference: There was no where to go but up for the Bulldogs, and they’ve made steady, if not remarkable, progress in just a year. A year ago, they went winless through the season, and it often wasn’t close. The Bulldogs were swept by a 5-0 score six times. This season, Mt. Zion’s been far more competitive. After a tough first three matches against Region 4-AAAA’s best — Forest Park, Jonesboro and Lovejoy — the Bulldogs have gone 5-2 and haven’t been swept at all this season.

Mount Zion

girls soccer

Last year: 1-8-0 This year: 9-2-0

The difference: It couldn’t get much worse for the Lady Bulldogs last season. Their most competitive loss was a 3-1 setback against Forest Park. Maybe all Mt. Zion needed was an infusion of young talent. Hello, freshman Lauren Smith. The young forward leads Mt. Zion in goals, and the Lady Bulldogs look in prime position to grab one of the top two spots in Region 4-AAAA and host a first-round state tournament game.

Ola boys soccer

Last year: 6-6-1

This year: 8-2-0

The difference: Defense hasn’t been the problem for the Mustangs. They’re allowing 2.3 goals per game this season, which is on par with the 2.2 goals per game they allowed last season. The difference has been on offense. The Mustangs have more than doubled their scoring pace — up to 5.4 goals per game from just 2.2 per game a year ago. And they’ve been able to put both phases of the game together when it matters, like in their 2-1 victory against previously ranked Dutchtown.

Ola boys track

2011 county meet: 6th out of 10 teams

2012 county meet: 3rd out of 11 teams

The difference: A year ago, the Mustangs might have been a bit one-dimensional. In a sixth-place finish, Ola scored 32 of its 50 points in field events. It severely lacked a presence in the sprints, hurdles and other track events. In stepped JoJo Spann and C.J. Carr. The two led a sprinting resurgence at this year’s meet for Ola, who scored 53 of its 100 points in track events. And the Mustangs stayed strong in the field events, especially with Spann’s first-place finish in the triple jump.

Union Grove baseball

Last year: 11-12 This year: 13-4

The difference: It was a tough transition for the Wolverines into ultra-competitive Region 3-AAAA. Was it their lineup? Probably not. Union Grove averaged 5.5 runs per game last season, which is just below the 5.8 they’re averaging so far this season. So was it their pitching? Apparently. The Wolverines have dominated on the mound this season, allowing just 1.8 runs per game, well down from the 4.1 runs per game they gave up in 2011. It helps having four starting pitchers that will pitch in college next season.

Woodland

girls track

2011 county meet: 4th out of 11 teams

2012 county meet: 1st out of 11 teams

The difference: The Lady Wolfpack had just one more first-place finish at this season’s county track and field meet than a year ago. Woodland won four events — the 100-meter hurdles, 4x400, 4x800 and shot put. But what helped the Lady Wolfpack nearly double their point total in one year was depth. In 2011, Woodland had seven top-4 finishes. That number jumped all the way to 18 this season. That was the difference in helping the Lady Wolfpack win their first county championship in school history.