It’s possible that the perception in metro Atlanta of Forsyth County girls basketball changed over the course of two games in one week this past February.
On Feb. 24, South Forsyth defeated Norcross in the second round of the Class AAAAAA playoffs – the same Norcross team that crushed the Lady War Eagles by 48 points the previous season and was coming off its third state title in four seasons.
Two days later, South defeated Parkview to reach the Final Four – the same Parkview team that had won two straight Region 8-AAAAAA championships and had gone 59-0 the previous two regular seasons.
"I don’t think very many people gave them a chance to win either one of those games," West Forsyth head coach David May said.
Indeed, South defeated both the Gwinnett County powers, and in doing so crushed long-held perceptions of Forsyth girls basketball as inferior to, well, almost anywhere.
"That perception is definitely changing," North Forsyth head coach Eric Herrick said.
South’s run to the Final Four was the most prominent example of that, but it had help from North, who defeated a pair of Gwinnett schools to reach the Elite Eight, and West, who made the state tournament with the most games in school history and featured one of the top recruits in the country.
All of which seems to have raised the stakes for what girls basketball in Forsyth, and in Region 6-AAAAAA in particular, could accomplish this season.
"It’s wide open right now," Herrick said. "I just think that just makes for such an exciting season."
The attention will be on Region 6 where Forsyth’s trio of state playoff alum resides, and it must start with North, for the Lady Raiders are the defending champions after all.
North’s ascension under Herrick was completed with last season’s region title behind an experienced core of junior guards Caroline Bowns and Lochlain Corliss and senior forward Avery Scarbrough. When the playoffs arrived, North shrugged off Duluth and dispatched Central Gwinnett to reach the Elite Eight where they lost to eventual state runner-up Archer.
Bowns, a Campbell signee, and Corliss return to give North the county’s winningest and most experienced backcourt. The Lady Raiders hope the group of Okwunne Ogbogu, Maddie Palmer and Sydney Pefanis can fill the void in the post left by Scarbrough’s graduation.
"We should be a good basketball team," Herrick said. "I believe we will be right in the mix. With our two senior guards, I’d never count us out."
North had a different outlook before last season. Then it was the clear-cut favorite, the back-to-back region runners-up who seemed poised to take the next step.
But as the season progressed, it was clear the gap was closing. Much of that had to do with the maturation of South. The Lady War Eagles’ core of KK Storm, Sarah Myers, a Maryland commitment, and Ally Welch was a year older. Freshmen Mari Jonassen and Caroline Diem emerged as dependable contributors. Lanier transfer Shelby Threlkeld added another scoring threat. They gelled in time to defeat North in the regular season, push the Lady Raiders to the brink in the region championship game and make their remarkable run to the Final Four.
And they all return, giving the Lady War Eagles perhaps the most offensive talent in the region in Diem, Jonassen, Myers, Storm, Threlkeld and Welch.
"They can put kids in five positions during a game who can score from anywhere on the floor," May said. "It makes them really hard to guard."
No one has been harder to guard the past two seasons than West junior center Jenna Staiti. The 6-foot-5 verbal commitment to Maryland averaged 23 points, 16 rebounds and six blocks last season, and the Lady Wolverines have built a playoff-caliber program around her skillset at both ends of the floor.
But West is also buoyed by the depth of experience returning, from starters Connor Parker, Jasmine Rodriguez and Abby Quincy to reserves Jane Ortlip and Carsen Parker.
"We think we’re ready," May said. "I think we’re ready. Our players think we’re ready. But until we actually get in that situation where we have to get it done in the fourth quarter … we won’t know."
And that’s the difference this season. How do you pick a clear-cut favorite?
North because of Bowns and Corliss and last season’s region title?
South because of Myers and Welch and the Final Four run?
West because of Staiti and all that experience back?
"It’s one of those things where any of those three teams can beat the other on any given night," Herrick said.
Let it be so, for the fans’ sake.