The Paradise Lady Panthers are riding high these days.
For the first time in 11 years, the Lady Panthers (22-8, 8-3) are heading to the postseason and are currently on a three-game winning streak after knocking off No. 9 Alvord on Friday.
Head girls basketball coach Eddie Fortenberry returned to the program last season to begin the rebuilding project, and in two seasons his team has already clinched a playoff spot in the tough District 9-2A, that includes No. 1 Brock.
“They believe they can win every time they play,” Fortenberry said. “We started trying to instill that in them last year. I truly believe when they hit the floor they believe they can beat anybody.”
After losing some leads to good teams down the stretch earlier in the season, the Lady Panthers started seeing their confidence grow till they finally got over the hump.
With wins over Millsap, Ponder and Alvord in their last three games, they have clinched a playoff spot and have a shot for second place in district. Brock has clinched the top spot in the district.
If Paradise and Alvord each win their Tuesday games they will have a playoff Friday at Decatur, with a 6 p.m. tip-off.
“Everyone was really excited,” junior Makayla Neighbors said after they clinched a postseason spot. “Once we walked into the locker room everyone was jumping up and down and screaming.”
The change is not only happening in basketball. The Lady Panthers finished third at the state cross country meet in November and were bi-district finalists in volleyball.
It’s been a complete attitude change throughout the girls program.
“Our attitude and willingness to work,” junior Makenna Burt says are the biggest changes. “Our practices have been harder than usual, and we are coming together as a team and doing what we need to do.”
All that hard work has turned the Lady Panthers into a pretty good basketball team – that may be peaking at just the right time.
“We know where everybody is on the floor, and we are more basketball smart,” Neighbors said. “Now we know how good we can be.”
The success is filtering down to the younger kids in the program, too. Girls in the stands are now taking pride in what they are seeing and want to be a part of the program.
According to Fortenberry that was not the case a few years ago.
“They feel a sense of responsibility to the community,” he said about his current team. “Our girls program is on the rise right now, and the biggest hurdle was just realizing they could win.”
The Lady Panthers are embracing the new role and are proud to be the group that is turning the program around.
“It’s just really exciting,” sophomore Courtney Kerr said. “It’s good for our community, and it’s cool to have kids looking up to you.”
Throughout all of the success they have enjoyed this season the Lady Panthers have stayed grounded. They realize there is a lot more that they want to achieve.
“They are going to act the same,” Fortenberry said. “They still have a lot of goals they want to accomplish. They have been so level-headed all year through the highs and the lows.”
With the playoffs beginning next week, Fortenberry feels his experience along with a difficult district schedule will be enough to help his inexperienced team adapt to the environment.
“We are playoff ready,” he said. “I hope that I have enough [experience] for them. I told them to just follow me, and I will get you through this.”
This group of Lady Panthers will look to build on whatever playoff success they gain this season, because with no seniors on the team they’re not quite ready to pass the torch just yet.