When Forest Park opened three years ago, the question was not when the girls' basketball program would jostle into Cardinal District contention, it was how. With traditional powers Woodbridge and Gar-Field in the league, the Bruins seemed like they faced a long road of mediocrity.

Coach Chrissy Kelly never bought that for one second -- or at least she didn't let on that she did. Her resolute optimism rubbed off on her players and yesterday paid off with a regular season district title. In the second of two district playback games this weekend to crown a regular season champion, No. 13 Forest Park erased a 10-point second-half deficit and pulled out a 51-45 win at No. 19 Woodbridge to claim an automatic berth into the Northwestern Region tournament.

For the Vikings, who were playing their third game in as many days after the weather-induced nine-day break, they will have to win the district tournament, or reach the final if Forest Park also advances to the championship, to claim a 12th straight regional berth.

But regardless of what happens this week, the Bruins are now rubbing elbows with the elite.

"When I got here, I told the very good JV team that I had on varsity we're going to win a district championship this year," Kelly said. "I knew I wasn't, and they knew they weren't, but I coached as if we were, and they played as if they were. We got it handed to us by everybody. . . . But I told them, if you buy into what we're doing, buy into what I believe in . . . we're going to get it done."

"When they created the Cedar Run District and they split [the Cardinal] up into four teams, we looked at it as we couldn't be happier, because when we do become district champions, we beat the best teams in the area to become district champions," junior forward Brenan Richards said. "Playing the tough competition day in and day out was what was going to make us better."

The Bruins (20-2), who split two five-point games with Woodbridge during the regular season, took the lead yesterday with 1 minute 56 seconds left, when junior Amanda Bates, who initially contemplated taking at three-pointer, scored on a runner in the lane to make it 43-42. From that point, sophomore Courtney Portell and junior DeCarol Davis combined to make eight of 13 free throws to seal the victory.

Woodbridge, which scored 30 of its first 42 points within four feet of the basket, managed just one field goal the final 5:32, that being a three-pointer by senior Whitney Allen with 33 seconds left. The Vikings, a 48.5 percent free-throw shooting team, missed all four foul shot attempts in the final four minutes, including two front ends of one-and-ones.

Four players scored all the Vikings' points, led by 17 from senior forward Diana Martinez. Davis led the Bruins with 11 points, and Bates and freshman Monica Wright (eight rebounds, three steals) had nine points each.

"They've worked hard to deserve this, and I didn't feel that they should allow anything to step in and take this away from them," said Kelly, whose team blew a 16-point lead Friday against Hylton to make a playback necessary. "They're just 14 kids who just busted their tails."