When 7:30 rolls around Friday night in Coal Mountain, two schools separated by less than 10 miles will seem a world apart, as West Forsyth visits North Forsyth to kick off another high school football campaign.
For West, it’s a momentous first step onto the field in a varsity game. Sure, it was essentially the same group of players that went 9-1 in a junior varsity schedule last year, but coach Frank Hepler made it clear all along that last year was a 10-game “preseason.” Tonight, the Wolverines’ story begins in earnest.
“I think [our kids’] sense is just excitement and just wanting to get a game under their belt. That’s what they’re really looking forward to,” Hepler said during practice Wednesday.
While the game may not offer the same type of beginning for North’s Raiders, it could provide a fresh start for a team coming off back-to-back one-win seasons. A victory would net the squad its first season-opening win since the members of the current senior class were freshmen in 2005.
North was the only team to top West last year, winning their JV meeting with many of the same players who will see action in tonight’s game on the field for both sides.
But Hepler shrugged off larger implications from a year ago, saying his team had a different focus last season.
“We were really just looking at last year as playing a lot of kids, learning our offense, learning our defense, and the wins and losses were kind of secondary,” West’s coach said.
“This is more of, ‘Hey, this is our first varsity experience, we’ve got to go out, we’ve got to perform, regardless of if it’s a team we beat last year or lost to last year.’”
North coach Jared Zito thinks last year’s game might have kicked off some competitive feelings between the two schools.
“I think a lot of those kids have played against each other [and] know each other in the community,” Zito said during practice Wednesday.
“I think [last year’s game] started the spark, certainly.”
North’s coach is quick to point out that West was still in building mode and North played roughly 3/4 of its junior varsity a year ago, though.
Both sides are complimentary of each other coming into tonight’s non-region showdown.
“I thought they were a very good football team [looking at their scrimmage vs. Alpharetta],” Hepler said of North.
“They did run the ball well. Their quarterback [Eli Chester] looked very good to me ... when they were trying to throw the ball some. Defensively they all ran to the ball well. ... We were very impressed with them overall.”
Zito says West is capable of a lot of trickery out of the Wing-T on offense, and gets up the field quickly on defense.
“We’ll definitely have to secure some gaps and make sure we’re sound in our protections and also in our blocking schemes,” he said.
Hepler said his bunch has had plenty to work on since scrimmaging Lumpkin County a week ago.
“As a coaching staff, we try to look at it with the players and look at the different areas we needed to improve on.
We thought our tackling needed to improve, we thought our timing on the offense needed to improve,” West’s coach said.
“That’s really what we’ve worked on over the last six or seven days, trying to get ready for North. When we saw them [against Alpharetta], we knew we had to be perfect in what we do just to even be in [our] game.”
Zito’s prognosis sounded similar, relating how the Raiders have spent the week between scrimmage and season kickoff.
“We’re just trying to look to improve from Friday. We were pleased with a lot of things Friday, but yet we still made our good share of execution and mental mistakes. Some of it was first-game jitters, and some of it was just not playing good football, so we’ve tried to focus on getting better based on Friday’s film,” he said.
“[West] is a rival and they’re a good football team and we’re going to have to execute and play hard to come out and try to compete with those guys.”
Sports editor Jared Putnam contributed to this article.