Photo by Derrick Mahone
Forest Park coach Antonio Wade says he is ‘excited’ about taking his first team to the state playoffs during his three-year tenure at the school.
In the waning moments of Forest Park’s 48-44 loss to Lovejoy in Region 4-AAAA Tournament consolation game, Panthers coach Antonio Wade saw something in his team that he had seen before, but hoped he wouldn’t see again.
After an emotional, two-point tournament loss to region runner-up Jonesboro the night before, Wade said it looked like his team just packed it in.
“We lost the Lovejoy game the night before against Jonesboro,” he said. “The same thing happened earlier in the season. We went to Jonesboro in the second game of the season, lost by two points and then came out the next and got beat by 20 against Morrow. We weren’t mentally ready to play and we weren’t mentally ready to play last week. We didn’t come out at all against Lovejoy.”
Yet the Panthers (16-11) live to play another game, but this time the stakes are a lot higher. Wade’s senior-led bunch knew that despite the region tourney loss, they’d be playing at state. This time, Forest Park is motivated by the fact that its next game could indeed be its last.
“I’m excited,” said Wade who’s taking his first boys team to state in three years as head coach. “And I hope they are as excited as I am. Some of these seniors realize that these games may be the last time they put on a uniform. I hope they take advantage of it.”
With eight seniors on this year’s team — four of whom are starters — it would seem as if the Panthers are built to make their run through the state tournament special. At least one Forest Park senior seems to think so.
“Getting here after all the work we’ve put in during the summer — during the last couple of summers. This just feels good,” said senior point guard Nick Crawford. “This has been our goal and Coach Wade’s goal since he came here.”
And don’t think the enormity of this opportunity has been lost on Crawford’s backcourt mate, Costa Anderson.
“It is an honor for me to get this far with this team in only my second year,” Anderson said. “Not too many players get to go to state this early in their high school careers.”
Other than the urgency factor, the Panthers have another motivational tool at their disposal going into their Friday night tilt at Alcovy (25-3 overall, 12-0 in Region 3A-AAAA) — the underdog factor.
To look at Forest Park on paper, you’ll notice that the Panthers aren’t going to be bigger than most teams they face. Patrick Jordan, the Panthers’ tallest regular starter is listed generously at 6 feet 4. With a decided height disadvantage in most games, Wade’s Panthers have relied on speed, quickness and tough defense to cause most of Region 4-AAAA’s top teams to walk off the court with nothing less than great respect for Forest Park’s brand of ball.
After then-third ranked Jonesboro escaped Forest Park with a 45-44 victory on Jan. 20, coach Dan Maehlman said the Panthers were playing “the best defensive ball in the region” at the time. Regardless of the opponent, Wade said his defensive philosophy is simple.
“Defense doesn’t care how tall you are,” he said. “We are going to play good, tough defense, keep the game close, and find a way to outcoach the other team in the end. That’s Forest Park basketball.”
Defense aside, the Panthers may be seen as an underdog in this year’s tournament, no matter how far they advance or whatever team they play. And for Crawford, that’s all right with him.
“Us versus the world,” said Crawford. “That’s our motto.”
Anderson seemed eager to chime in.
“Nobody seemed to believe in us all year, but here we are. We’re all we’ve got,” he said.
Wade would love nothing more than to help send his eight seniors out with a deep run into the state tournament. This is the first Forest Park boys team to advance to state since the 2008-09 team went to the tournament’s sweet sixteen. But Wade knows that repeating such success begins with the right mentality at Alcovy.
“These seniors have been through much and I love them to death,” Wade said. “From just five wins two years ago, all the naysayers, negative attention, now with 16 wins and at state, a playoff victory would be special. This team putting on a run would be special. But if we don’t go to Alcovy with the right mindset, it’s going to be a short tournament and a long night.”
Crawford says he and his teammates are ready to embrace that kind of pressure.
“From this point on, we practice and we play every game like it’s our very last,” he said.