MOULTRIE - The 2003-2004 Colquitt County High girls basketball team has the potential to be one of the school's strongest in awhile ... especially if Mantoya Thomas returns quickly after suffering a knee injury at practice last Friday.

The senior point guard was on crutches at school Monday and was expected to see the orthopedist later in the afternoon.

She is not expected to play in today's 7 p.m opener at Thomasville and will be replaced at the point by sophomore Ashley Stafford.

But when she is back in the starting lineup, four of the expected starting five - Thomas and fellow senior Tearra McDonald and sophomores Jessica Lemus and Stafford - are veterans with plenty of experience.

Senior Micole Sutton is expected to round out a starting five that should allow the Lady Packers to make a strong run at the Region 1-AAAAA championship.

Depth is a question mark, even with Thomas healthy.

Sophomores Monica Wright and Dorothy Strong and junior Tiffany Erving, expected to be the sixth, seventh and eighth players, have no varsity experience.

But all may have to grow up fast in the wake of the Thomas injury.

"Our top five is so athletic. And they only need 45 seconds or a minute and they are ready to come back," coach Joe Parker said before Thomas went down.

The Lady Packers came within a game of winning the region tournament championship last year, losing to Lowndes in the finals after having defeated the Vikettes for the first time in 10 years during the regular season.

Colquitt finished 17-12, but was ousted in the first round of the state playoffs by Houston County, 45-26.

The loss ended what still proved to be a successful season for the Lady Packers, who had bounced back from a 7-21 campaign the year before.

But Colquitt must replace Katherine Faircloth, Teresa Hamilton, Valeika Ponder, Ashley Harrison and Latoyia Seay.

All were prime contributors last season, with Faircloth, Hamilton and Ponder starting much of the season. Ponder was named to the All-Region team and Hamilton is now playing at Abraham Baldwin College.

But with a healthy Thomas, the Lady Packers may have the quickest guard in the region.

Lemus, a 6-footer and an All-Region 1-AAAAA selection as a freshman last year, has the potential to be the top post player in the region.

McDonald has been a solid starter for two seasons and Stafford also has All-Region potential after displaying her talents coming off the bench last year.

Sutton is a bit of an unknown, but even last year, Parker said he expected her to have a strong senior season.

Parker was reluctant to call this team the most experienced one he has started a season with, but it is clear he expects it to be a successful one - maybe even matching the 21 victories posted by his 2000-2001 team. The most victories by a Colquitt County girls team in the last 25 years was 24, won by the Julian Grantham-coached 1983-1984 team.

"They're itching for it," Parker said of his seventh team as his team awaited the opener.

Parker, who has a 79-84 career record that includes a 4-20 mark his first season, says if the Lady Packers can get the ball inside, especially to Lemus, they will be difficult to defeat.

"Everything is gear toward a high/low situation, where we'll try to get the ball inside," Parker said. "If we can push the ball down the floor and get it inside, we'll be successful.

"Offensively, we hope to be able to get it in to Jessica."

Parker spent much of the summer and fall trying to improve Lemus's offensive abilities. She became a defensive force last year after taking over as a starter in the second game of her freshman season.

"She's got the will and the want and God gave her the goods," Parker said.

And with Thomas and Stafford racing the ball down the court, Lemus, McDonald and Sutton may find themselves open often underneath the basket.

Parker said McDonald and Lemus mesh well inside.

"They look for each other in the post," he said.

And he doesn't expect to face many man-to-man defenses.

"We're a lot to deal with in man," Parker said. "I look for us to see a lot of zone."

But the Lady Packers should be able to handle most zones.

"We're polished," he said. "We're experienced offensively. We can look for the third and fourth option on things."

And defensively, "we should create a lot of problems for folks," Parker said.

"We are going to play a lot of pressure defense and try to turn our defense into offense. Even when we play a 2-3 zone, it's going to be geared to pressure and trapping."

Parker said the team also has been working to increase its free throw percentage, which has not been where he has wanted it the last few years.

"Our team goal is 80 percent," he said. "It hasn't been there since I've been here."

Parker said Wright, another of the strong sophomore class that also include Lemus, Stafford, Strong and LaJoy Alderman, would be the first player off the bench when Thomas starts.

Wright played extremely well during the Lady Packers 41-game summer schedule.

"She's a true No. 4," Parker said. "She can shoot."

Strong also will help relieve Thomas and Erving, a junior, will provide relief in the front court.

Alderman, junior Latoya Carr and freshman Nikki Hudson round out the varsity roster. Parker is high on Hudson's potential.

"She may be able to step in and help this year," Parker said. "But there's no hurry."

Defending region champion Lowndes and Coffee also are expected to contend for the region championship this season.

The Lady Trojans especially concern Parker.

"They are going to be something to deal with," he said. "They've got some real athletic guards."

In addition to its Region 1-AAAAA and normal non-region schedule, the Lady Packers will play in the Holiday Bank of Jones County Holiday Classic Dec. 18-22 in Gray and in the CNS-Colquitt County Invitational on Jan. 2-3.

Colquitt's girls will open the Jones County tournament at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 18, against Monticello and will play either the winner or loser of the Putnam County-Dublin game on Saturday, Dec. 20. They also will play on Monday, Dec. 22.

In the four-team CNS-Colquitt County Invitational, the Lady Packers will meet Worth County on Friday, Jan. 2 and either Coffee or Cairo the next day.

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