When the Forsyth Central boys basketball team last won a state tournament game, way back in 1980, a teenage Michael Jordan was playing high school ball up in Wilmington, N.C. At the time, Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter was our president, Pink Floyd and Queen dominated the radio airwaves and the world had just discovered that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father.
Since then, Central has only qualified for the playoffs twice, doing so in 1997 and 2001.
Indeed, the Bulldogs have been struggling for quite a while, and last year’s 7-18 record didn’t inspire much confidence moving forward. But if the early portion of the 2013 campaign is any indication, they may be on the verge of a big — and long overdue — turnaround.
Led by Greg Dirst, who is now in his second stint as head coach, Central is off to a 3-0 start this season and sits atop the 7-AAAAA, Div. A standings going into last night’s game at Cambridge. A newfound, infectious sense of optimism has developed within this group, creating the kind of chemistry a youthful roster needs to win.
"The difference from [last year] is the attitude of the team has been tremendous," said Dirst. "They share the ball and don’t really care who scores. If we can continue to do that and think ‘team first,’ it could mean big things for us."
Among the plethora of issues that plagued Central in 2012, the animosity between its players was one of the bigger problems. With a lot of new faces in the locker room, the team made a point to correct that this year, and its ability to do so has paid major dividends.
"I was able to dress varsity last year, so I was able to see all the tension," said sophomore Josiah Laws, who is averaging 12.7 points and nine rebounds per game in 2013. "We really made a point this offseason of cleaning that up and focusing on being a team on and off the court. Find ways to hang out, stuff like that—and I really think it’s working."
Now that the inter-squad hostility has been alleviated, the most important goal for Central is to remove what they call the "loser label" that has stamped the school’s athletics for decades. According to Dirst, rivals tend to view games against the Bulldogs as easy wins, and the only way to change that is to prove opponents wrong for taking them lightly.
That process has already begun, as Central has already beaten several county schools — a feat Dirst said is rarely accomplished.
"I think we’ve realized that we’re the underdogs, and just because we’re the underdogs doesn’t mean we have to keep that loser label," said sophomore guard Eli Brown, who is Central’s leading scorer with 15.7 points per game. "That’s why they came up with the theme this year ‘tearing the label off.’ We don’t have anything to lose, so we go out there and give everything we’ve got."
Significant roster turnover gave Central an opportunity to improve its chemistry, but that has left Dirst with many raw, untested players. This has put some added weight on the shoulders of the team’s lone senior, Jeremiah Jones, to become the emotional leader—a role he appears to be thriving in.
"I’m having fun leading them," Jones said. "They all played last year on JV, so I knew them from practice. And now four sophomores are starting for us. So when something goes bad, they all look at me and I have to calm everyone down and say ‘we got this.’"
Jones, who has racked up 15.3 points per game thus far, has certainly earned the respect of his teammates, many of whom consider him a big brother of sorts.
"He brings a positive influence to the other players," said Brown. "He’s being more serious this year and realizes that people are relying on him to help us work together and keep us from being a bunch of individuals."
While the early winning streak has given Central a significant confidence boost, the school knew it may have a special team on its hands before the regular season started.
"It was our first scrimmage," said Laws. "We beat West Hall by a large amount, we blew them out. After that we were getting compliments throughout the hallway, different teachers, custodians saying ‘great win.’ Then everyone started talking, ‘What if our basketball team makes it to state?’"
If the Bulldogs can continue to win and earn a bid to the state tournament, it would be a tremendous step in the right direction for Dirst and his boys, and would mean a lot to the community.
"It would be huge," said Brown. "It would mean a lot to the school and the county to put Central back on the map as a contender and a winning organization. It would build the spirits of our students and staff, and help be more like a family than just a school.
"We feel like we can get there. We want to shock the world."