MAHONE: Wrestlers helping change Forest Park image

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FOREST PARK — The building was kind of an eyesore.

It is one of the oldest schools in Clayton County, and the Forest Park campus has been showing its age.

But a major renovation project at the school has started to bring the appearance up.

A once-proud athletic program has seen its troubles over the last few years, but a winning girl’s basketball program has cast a new light on the school.

Deep playoff runs can do that for your athletic program.

Now, the wrestling team is starting to do its part in taking the Panthers’ athletic program from mediocrity into respectability.

There are proud alumni of the school that are sprinkled throughout the metro Atlanta area. There’s not a place that you can go in the Atlanta area that you don’t meet some one with some ties to Forest Park High.

Despite a laughable athletic program they still proclaim to be part of the Maroon and Gold Nation.

Blake Kennedy, who just won his first county wrestling title, is soon to be a second-generation Forest Park graduate. His mother will proudly tell you that she is a graduate of Forest Park High.

And Friday night she was all smiles as her son won the 160-pound weight class en route to helping Forest Park capture its third straight Clayton County Traditional Wrestling Championship.

“Team-wise, I’m proud of this team,” Kennedy said. “We put in the hours to get this championship.”

The transformation of the program came with the hiring of Don Williams three years ago. As co-head coach at Lovejoy, Williams helped lead that program to two straight county titles.

Williams is no stranger to wrestling success. He is a three-time state champion during his tenure at Stockbridge and Eagle’s Landing high schools in nearby Henry County.

He knows what it takes to build a winner, and he has brought that formula to an eager group of Forest Park wrestlers.

During practices they seem to absorb his knowledge of the sport as they practice in a corner of the school’s new gymnasium. They learn from him, and each other.

It is common for Williams to stop practice, and let one of his wrestlers instruct teammates on the proper technique that has made him successful.

They drill, and then drill some more.

And it has paid off.

Earlier this month, Forest Park finished fourth in one of the state’s toughest area dual championships. They had a one-point loss to a sound McIntosh team before picking up their first win over Union Grove.

This might not be classified as one of those David versus Goliath wins, but it was huge for a program like Forest Park.

A coach of Williams’ resume has had his opportunities to bolt for what some people would call a better job. But he has stayed at the Clayton County school to work it into an area contender.

His team reflects what is now a more diverse Forest Park community. And this team is doing their part to shed the school of its losing athletic program perception.

Derrick Mahone is the sports editor of the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at dmahone@news—daily.com. On Twitter? Follow him @DerrickMahone_.