Photo by Derrick Mahone
Forest Park senior Ashlee Cole (12) and junior Raven Wynn have been key reasons the Lady Panthers are still alive in the state playoffs despite being hit by a rash of injuries this season.
OK. So you’re the Forest Park Lady Panthers. Last year’s state runners-up and this year’s Region 4-AAAA runners-up, despite a roster decimated with injuries and dependent on two freshman post players.
You feel as if people have counted you out. Underestimated your depth. Kicked the former favorites to the curb. Forget losing to Jonesboro in the region championship game. Some were mildly surprised that you made it there in the first place.
And the state tournament? Perhaps just a consolation prize for giving good effort despite being undermanned. But two victories later — a nail-biter against McIntosh that brought out rare emotions fromcoach Steven Cole, and a rout against Bainbridge — if you’re Forest Park, you can say you’ve proved your point, right? You’ve made the elite eight. Turned doubters into believers.
Surely people aren’t still counting out the Lady Panthers, are they?
“Absolutely,” senior forward Tamara Brewster said. “There are so many people who have looked at our injuries and looked at who we have left and counted us out and thought we didn’t have a chance and we’ve proven everybody wrong.”
And for those who still want to doubt despite the Lad Panthers’ recent run of success, Brewster had a special message:
“We’re going to continue to prove people wrong,” she said.
That confident sound you hear exudes from Cole’s no-excuses attitude. Despite season-ending injuries to four players who either started or heavily contributed for the Lady Panthers, Cole talks about his team as one he still expects to win.
Take the Bainbridge game, for example — a 60-32 drubbing.
“In that second game of the tournament, our girls hit a stride,” Cole said. “We clicked on all cylinders and you hope heading into the next game against Alcovy, you can carry that in and not have any mental letdowns.”
The Alcovy Tigers, 26-4 overall and a perfect 12-0 during regular- season, Region 3A-AAAA play will bring a more than formidable challenge to the Lady Panthers’ table. The thought of that brings a smile to Breasia McElrath’s face.
“It’s a challenge. But I like challenges,” said McElrath, who along with fellow freshman Kanisha Tharpe, were thrust into the starting lineup after a season-ending knee injury to center Lisa Pease.
“At the beginning of the season, I didn’t expect to be playing this much,” she said. “But we don’t give up and we’re going to continue to play and work as a team, no matter who we play.”
Cole says he is proud of his freshmen and how they’ve developed, heading into what he believes will be a “dogfight” of a game on Friday night in Fort Valley.
“They’re not playing like freshmen anymore,” Cole said. “I really think they have matured. They are contributing a lot to have been thrown into the spotlight so suddenly, and we need them.”
Alcovy has already had success against another Region 4-AAAA team in this year’s state tournament. The Lady Tigers defeated Mundy’s Mill 60-48 in the first round, before knocking off Region 1-AAAA champion Warner Robins 71-62 to advance to the quarterfinals.
Senior guard Ashlee Cole said that Alcovy is impressive, but not invincible.
“They are really tough. They’re athletic. They play pressure defense and are very well-coached,” she said. “But in order to beat them, we’ll have to play hard defense and use that defense to create our offense. If we do that, we’re going to be good.”
Brewster also believes that hard-nosed consistency will make for more Forest Park success.
“If we stick to our tasks, keep coming together as a team, in spite of who’s out, we’ll be fine,” she said. “We can’t let them push us around.”
The Lady Panthers, indeed, don’t look or sound like a group just happy to be here despite the adversity. In fact, they still talk like a team destined to take care of some unfinished business.
When asked if she believed there was anything that could stand in their way of getting back to the state-title game, Brewster’s answer was succinct, yet sure.
“Nope,” she said.
Forest Park vs. Alcovy
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Where: Fort Valley State University
Records, rankings: Alcovy is 24-6 and ranked No. 8; Forest Park is 23-6 and unranked.
Last meeting: Forest Park won 48-41 in 2010.
Game notes: Alcovy is led by Kate Palo, who has scored 1,000 points in her career. This is the Lady Tigers first trip to the state quarterfinals. Forest Park is looking to make its third straight trip to the state semifinals.