By Gabriel Stovall
RIVERDALE, Ga. — So here’s been the story the last couple of years for Forest Park girls’ basketball.
Start the season with tons of promise, including state championship aspirations.
Get out of the gate fairly fast, showing dominance in spots that make you remember why you saw them as a trendy state title pick the year before.
Get snagged by the injury bug where one or two of your key players are shelved for large parts — if not all — of the season.
Listen to the prognosticators count you out and say your postseason championship hopes are done.
Ban together, go win a region title and become the talk of the local state tournament seen once again.
And for this season? Check. Check. Check. Check, and check.
In what seemed like an instant replay of the last two years, the Lady Panthers Sit atop their region once again, this time grabbing the Region 4-AAAAA championship this past Saturday with a gratifying 58-48 win Saturday over the 2013-14 Region 4-AAAA champs, and Final Four squad, Woodland Wolfpack.
This season’s region triumph was satisfying for a few reasons, none of which greater than the fact that Forest Park had to beat a team which was feeling itself after an early-season defeat of the Panthers which triggered talk of Region 4-AAAAA arrival and the eventual dethroning of the reigning region champs.
It didn’t happen.
“Beating Woodland was real big,” said senior Kerry Watson who transferred in from Stephenson this season.
“I came into this game with two chips on my shoulders from the last loss. All I know is after you get that loss, and they keep talking trash, you don’t wanna go home. You want to get after it again. People were saying we were below them and everybody, but as you can see now, that’s not the truth.”
Sure, Forest Park has bigger fish than a region title it wants to fry. This goes back to 2011 when the Lady Panthers got a taste of playing for a state championship when it lost narrowly to Fayette County in the Class AAAA final.
Since then, coach Steven Cole’s team has gotten close — including a Final Four appearance last season, and back-to-back deep tourney runs halted by close losses to Southwest DeKalb.
But Cole says while those times have been tough, he tends to see and celebrate the big picture of progress in his program.
“Whether we win state or not, I’m confident, particularly in this bunch of girls, because of their commitment to the program,” Cole said. “The administrators, teachers and community of Forest Park all stand behind these girls. That’s why they’re able to play that way year in and year out.”
And that’s why winning a third straight region championship is no small feat for seniors like Central Arkansas signee Kanisha Tharpe.
“Me and (Breasia McElrath) have been putting up banners since our freshman year,” Tharpe said. “We had some butterflies in the beginning of that game, but after that, we handled business and we got it done.”
Both Tharpe and McElrath — post players who have been fixtures in Forest Park’s starting lineup since they were freshmen — spoke proudly of what this particular region crown meant to the senior class.
“We had to finish the legacy at Forest Park,” McElrath said.
“(The region title) was taking us one step closer to state,” she said. “It’s a part of our legacy, and it’s always good to put up another banner.”
Now, on to the chase for the biggest banner of them all. And with Coffee coming in for a 6 p.m. Tuesday tip-off in the first round of the state playoffs, Cole said there’s no room for resting on past laurels — even the legacy-building types.
“Oh, it’s no time for rest,” Cole said. “It’s state time. We have to be ready to go after it. No time for rest at all.”