Whenever Frank Hepler has been around high school football in Forsyth County, he’s been starting something.
Hepler was the first head football coach in the history of West Forsyth High School, and he never had a losing season with the Wolverines, going 42-16 in his five seasons with the program. After a short stint back in his home state of Florida and then at Discovery High School in Gwinnett County, where he presided over that program’s first season, he was back in Cumming for the 2016 season, preparing Forsyth Central for its first season in Class 7A.
This time, Hepler started with a thud, rather than a bang. The Bulldogs went 3-9, with all three of those wins coming in non-region play, and they didn’t score a point in their last three games of the season, against Milton, South Forsyth and Lambert.
Hepler knows he can’t hide from that, even deflecting some positive banter during this year’s Forsyth County Media Day.
“You guys think we were in the mix last year?” Hepler asked. “If you look at our scores, we were not in the mix. We got to play games, and we got to learn a lot about the region, but we weren’t in the mix.”
He then shared a story about meeting Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn over the summer. Quinn told Hepler about how the Falcons’ brutal loss in the Super Bowl had motivated the team during the summer. Hepler felt the sentiment, just at a far smaller scale.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, the Super Bowl.’ I just would have liked to have won a region game,” Hepler said. “So you can imagine how motivated we’ve been working this offseason.”
Central is far from a football power, recording just one winning season in the past 10 years, so part of Hepler’s focus during the offseason was building the program as its most basic foundations. He mentioned team-wide improvements in strength in speed tests and a significant increase in participants across all four grades, from 105 when Hepler arrived in 2016 to 165 now.
The Bulldogs can also expect to see the expected improvements of a program that no longer has to learn a new coach’s system. Hepler called what the Bulldogs ran last year a “new program offense” and said that the coaching staff has introduced “little nuances” into this year’s system.
“I think I know the offense a lot better than I did last year,” senior quarterback Brad Thiltgen said,” being able to learn it, understand it.”
Thiltgen will have the advantage of having an extra year to learn the plays, and he also hopes to avoid the injury problems that cost him three games last season. The Bulldogs have the tricky task of replacing productive running back Sabrian Howard, now playing at Cornell, but they’ve brought in Michael Miller, a transfer from Alpharetta, to work at that position.
The Bulldogs are set to bring back Dalton Edmunds and Mark Heard, their two top receivers from last year. Senior tackle Matt Olson is set to be a leader on the offensive line, and transfer Blake Brown could slot in at center.
Central doesn’t lose a Division I talent like Howard on defense, but the Bulldogs’ top four tacklers from 2016, most notably linebacker Sebastian Legarra, have all graduated. Younger players like sophomore safety Mitch Weber and junior linebacker Jackson Leak will be trusted to replace much of that production, and senior Greg Wozniak, who played on the offensive line last season, has switched to linebacker and impressed at that spot.
And last but certainly not least – especially in the eyes of today’s Instagram-savvy teens – the Bulldogs made some small waves over the summer with a set of new uniforms that return to the simplicity of the school’s red, white and black color scheme, with glossy, cherry-red helmets.
Senior defensive lineman Blake McDaniel was asked about his impressions of the new threads at media day. Before answering, he cleared his throat.
“We love them,” he said.
“You choked him up a little bit right there,” Hepler said, with the laughter in the room lightening the mood around him and his team.
First varsity season: 1955
Playoff appearances: 5 (1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001)
Region titles: 3 (1996, 1997, 2000)
State titles: none
At Central: 3-6, second season.
Overall: 192-65, 24th season.
All games 7:30 p.m. unless noted
Aug. 25: vs. Dawson County
Sept. 1: at River Ridge
Sept. 8: at Meadowcreek
Sept. 15: vs. Duluth
Sept. 22: at Kennesaw Mountain
Oct. 6: vs. North Forsyth*
Oct. 13: at West Forsyth*
Oct. 20: vs. Milton*
Oct. 27: at South Forsyth*
Nov. 3: vs. Lambert*
* Region 5-7A game