Photo by Brian Paglia
Forest Park senior and team captain Rafael Martinez said the Panthers’ 3-0 loss to Greenbrier in the first round of the state playoffs last season has been a motivational tool this year. “We should’ve gone further” he said.
To learn about itself, Forest Park boy’s soccer team has dug deep into the implications of its matches this season. The final result is not enough for the Panthers. They must know more, so that a win or loss leads to a close examination of common opponents to figure out Forest Park’s competitiveness on a level outside of Clayton County.
It’s not a rare thing for high school coaches to do, in any sport, but it’s especially useful for Forest Park this season. The way the Panthers have breezed through the county and Region 4-AAAA this season — going 8-0 and outscoring opponents 50-6 — they needed to make sure they were prepared for the state tournament.
Though Forest Park (11-2, 6-0 Region 4-AAAA) still has region matches against Lovejoy and North Clayton as it looks to clinch its first region championship since 2009, the Panthers figure to gain the most from Thursday’s match against Fayette County school and Region 3-AAAA member Whitewater (5-6-0).
“We’re going to know a lot more [about our team] Thursday against Whitewater,” Forest Park coach Jonathan White said. “It’s going to be interesting. If we play good soccer, we feel like we’ll be alright.”
“I think we’re very excited to play them,” senior defender Jair Vega said.
Forest Park’s anticipation for Thursday’s match is nearly as much about how the Panthers will perform against the Wildcats as it is who Whitewater has played.
Whitewater’s schedule is filled with soccer powerhouses — McIntosh, Starr’s Mill, St. Pius X, Heritage and more. Forest Park is well aware of the Wildcats’ results against top competition, a category they believe includes them.
“Whitewater plays top schools,” Forest Park senior and captain Rafael Martinez said. “We want to see how we compare to them.”
Within Clayton County and Region 4-AAAA, few have compared with Forest Park. The Panthers have made the state tournament four of the past five seasons and have hosted a first-round game the past three seasons. They defeated Dutchtown for their 2009 region title, and finished runner-up to Dutchtown and Lovejoy the past two seasons.
Forest Park hasn’t compared as well when it ventures out of the county and region. It has lost in the first round of the state three of the past four seasons in agonizing fashion — a 4-3 loss to Woodward Academy in 2008, 2-1 loss to Upson-Lee in 2010 and 3-0 loss to Greenbrier last season.
The Greenbrier loss has been particularly galvanizing for Forest Park — and hard to forget. Greenbrier scored in the first 10 seconds of the game. A young Panthers team never recovered.
“We weren’t playing our best,” Martinez said. “That game, I don’t know how to describe it. We were out of it, out of shape. We didn’t go in with the same mentality as we have this year. We were happy that we were in the state playoffs.”
“We just lost all focus,” White said. “They just lost their composure.”
This season, Forest Park’s only two losses have been to opponents outside the county and region. The Panthers dropped 2-0 games to Dutchtown and Chamblee in mid-February, but have wins against Troup County (4-0) and Region 3A-AAAA leader Woodland (10-0).
Forest Park’s performance against Woodland was especially encouraging for White. Playing on the artificial turf at Twelve Oaks Stadium, the Panthers played put its advantage in speed to use and dominated a Henry County opponent.
“If we can play like we played against Woodland, we could get to the third round,” White said. “That’s what we want.”
Forest Park has reason to believe it can get there, and it starts with experience, led by seniors Martinez, Vega and Jaime Maldonaldo. Goalkeeper Adan Cordoba is also a senior and a three-year starter who White calls “one of the top goalies in the state.” The Panthers top three scorers — Mauro Ayala, Vicente Zenteno and Omar Cruz — are all juniors who started last season.
With so much experience returning, Forest Park has played as a cohesive team and stuck to the principles of the possessive, keeping-the ball-on-the-ground game that White has implemented in his second year as head coach.
“We’re starting to play more as a team,” Vega said. “We communicate more. I see that this team is actually growing, getting more chemistry. I think we can be one of the top teams in our region.”
“We’ve played a few games this year where we’ve really made some teams look stupid by keeping the ball at our feet,” White said. “They’ve learned a lot.”
How much they’ve learned will depend on how well they do in the state tournament, and the expectations have been clear since the beginning of the season.
“We talked about being region champs and going to at least the second round of the playoffs,” Martinez said. “And if we made it to the third round, that’d be amazing.”