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Paglia: North Forsyth girls’ wild ride doesn’t have to be their last
North Forsyth girls basketball players walk off the court after their 52-44 loss to Westlake on Saturday in the Class 7A state semifinals. - photo by Lily McGregor Photography

BUFORD — With 11 seconds remaining, the mourning began for the North Forsyth girls basketball team. Cassie Markle, a senior, took the court for the final sequence of the Raiders’ 52-44 loss to Westlake on Saturday in the Class 7A state semifinal, and tears started to well up. She glanced at Amber Jones, another senior, and they knowingly smiled: their time with North girls basketball was ticking away.

They and the rest of the Raiders had spent most of the previous 31 minutes 49 seconds defying expectations. North pushed Westlake far more than the Lions had previously been to at this point in the state tournament. They trailed by just one point at the end of the third quarter and 47-42 with 42 seconds left, well within range for a comeback. Westlake didn’t let that happen.

“What more could I ask for? They gave us everything they had,” North head coach Eric Herrick said. 

It was a validating performance by a Forsyth County girls basketball team on this stage for the second straight time. The Raiders were making their first appearance ever in the state semifinals, and that can be a daunting challenge. The venue changes, altering the shooting backdrop and crowd dynamics. The opponents are elite, many times among the best in the nation. The stakes, of course, are more urgent than ever. 

But the county is making strides. When South Forsyth reached the state semifinals in 2014, they were the first girls team from Forsyth County in the GHSA to do so since 1970, but they were overwhelmed in a 64-27 loss to McEachern. West Forsyth was next, in 2016, and behind 51 points from center Jenna Staiti, the eventual Miss Georgia Basketball, the Wolverines were within striking distance late before falling 81-70 to McEachern as well.

And there was North on Saturday, a few plays away from conquering probably the best team in the state regardless of classification. 

“Everybody thought we were going to get blown away,” North sophomore guard Caroline Martin said. “We were playing a nationally-ranked team. We were down by a little bit, and then we just kind of lost it at the end.”

What followed for South and West after their playoff runs offers perspective on how fragile success can be. 

South was a better team the year after its state semifinal run, but the War Eagles got a tougher bracket in the playoffs and lost to McEachern in the second round. The next year, they missed the state playoffs altogether after star guard Sarah Myers got injured in the regular season finale. Two years after West’s state semifinal run, the Wolverines won just four games. 

For North, it’s well within the realm of possibility to return to the state semifinals sooner than later. Martin transformed after the Christmas break into a complete scorer and defender with moxie to match. That forward Kate Perryman started against Westlake as a freshman speaks volumes about her talent now, which should only improve in the following years. Sophomores Ansley Allen and Vekondja Ogbogu should slide right in to starting roles and continue to develop. That group has another two seasons to grow together. 

And after this historic season, they also have perhaps the most important element of all: the belief that it can be done.

“We can play with anybody,” Herrick said. “On any given night on the biggest stage in the biggest gym in front of the biggest crowd, we can show up and play with anybody.”