What was once a distant goal for the Forsyth Central football team will soon be a patch on the Bulldogs’ letterman jackets.
That’s how assistant coach Scott Walker envisioned it in the festive postgame huddle on Central’s field on Friday night, with players, parents and students all gathered around Bulldogs head coach Frank Hepler. Central had just beaten South Forsyth 26-21, putting itself in third place in Region 5-7A, and their coaches could finally say the word: Playoffs.
“It’s insane,” Bulldogs senior defensive back Tristen Rose said. “It’s been a long time since Central’s had something like this go on, and we’ve been busting our butts for it. To see it finally come true is amazing.”
The win clinches a postseason berth for Central, which holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over North Forsyth even if the Raiders were to beat Milton and the Bulldogs were to lose to Lambert, tying the teams at 2-3.
The main source of euphoria, though, was the just-completed game, which the Bulldogs flatly dominated at times. After turning the ball over on downs in South territory in the first quarter, Central scored on the very next play, with Rose intercepting Drew Morris’ swing pass and running 30-plus yards in for a pick-six.
“I just felt it,” Rose said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
The Bulldogs (6-3, 2-2 Region 5-7A) scored in five plays on their next drive, with Devran Orsan running a score in from 14 yards out. The teams exchanged punts before Central got a safety when a high snap on a South punt went out of the end zone, and on the ensuing drive, quarterback Bronson Landreth connected with Caydin Mowen for a 41-yard touchdown pass to go up 23-0.
The numbers for Central in the first half didn’t signal a huge advantage – the Bulldogs had 76 yards rushing on 24 carries and 58 yards passing on two completions – but they limited South as well, with the War Eagles getting just 140 yards of total offense.
“We hadn’t played physical the last two weeks,” Hepler said. “We talked about it on Monday morning last week: ‘Look, play the style of football you’re used to playing, and that’s physical football.’”
South (5-4, 2-2) also was exceptionally penalty-prone, with eight flags in the first half and 13 total in the game. The War Eagles were flagged for a 15-yard personal foul on the play before Mowen’s touchdown.
The Bulldogs’ offense slowed in the second half, gaining just 42 yards on 18 rushes, and South’s combination of Morris and Jordan Brunson gained effectiveness. The War Eagles scored on a nine-yard Brunson run with 8:03 left in the third quarter, and Morris ran in from 36 yards out with 3:49 to play in the third.
However, those drives were sandwiched by a 42-yard field goal by Central kicker Brody Palmer, and that kept the margin beyond a single score, at 26-21 entering the fourth quarter. South got as far as the Central 11 on an eight-plus minute drive, but the Bulldogs forced a turnover on downs, swarming Morris as he struggled to contain a low snap.
The Bulldogs punted on the next series, but they again grabbed a quick turnover, with Jake Bretz picking off Morris’ long jump-ball throw to the right. Central then got a crucial first down before taking a knee to bleed the clock out.
As the Bulldogs celebrated reaching the playoffs a year after going 0-10, Hepler also pointed out and thanked the players from that team and the previous years’ that had returned on senior night. Central athletic director Dan Kaplan also interjected, announcing to the crowd that the win was the 200th of Hepler’s career.
The triumphant mood didn’t give Hepler any concern about complacency or coasting. The program’s recent history is enough to dispel that.
“We were 0-10 last year,” Hepler said. “These guys, they don’t like losing.”