Morgan Watson and her Forsyth Central softball teammates had a grievance to air.
For the last two years, Central’s athletic department has celebrated the end of the season with an awards banquet styled after the ESPYs, ESPN’s annual gala that celebrates the best of sports each year. Awards are presented for Team of the Year, Boy and Girl Athletes of the Year, Coach of the Year, and on and on.
Watson and the Bulldogs felt they deserved to be among the nominees for Game of the Year for their 6-5 win against South Forsyth, a team that eventually reached the GHSA Softball Championships in Columbus. But they weren’t, so Watson and four teammates confronted athletic director Dan Kaplan one day.
“We thought it was wrong that we weren’t on the list of nominees,” Watson said. “And I think this year we should be.”
Actually, the Bulldogs can dream a little higher at this school year’s awards banquet. They’ve played in compelling games again, like extra-inning wins against Lambert and West Forsyth, but they have a compelling team résumé now, too, one that should be a source of inspiration to other Central athletic programs this season after a difficult transition to the state’s highest classification.
Central entered last night’s game against South Forsyth at 14-7 overall and 8-5 in Region 5-7A, already assured of their first state playoff appearance since 2012. It’s a remarkable turnaround from last season when the Bulldogs went 8-16 and 4-11 in the team and school’s first in Class 7A and Region 5 with the county’s other public high schools and Milton.
Those struggles were fairly common to Central athletics last year. Moving up from Class 5A to 7A took its toll – the Bulldogs placed 42nd out of 47 teams in 7A in the Regions Bank Director’s Cup standings.
“Last year was a bit of a culture shock,” Bulldogs head coach Kaelin Stevens said.
Stevens and the team have often pointed to its final two games last season – that 6-5 win against South and a 1-0 loss to North Forsyth – as necessary confidence-boosters going into an offseason of unparalleled work.
“Over the summer, I think we worked harder than anybody,” Watson said.
“Any chance we got to work on the field, everyone was here,” junior catcher Grace Kizer said.
“We put in a lot of hard work this summer, and we weren’t going to let what happened last year … happen again,” senior outfielder Sadie Waters said.
Stevens would know. This is the third school year she’s led two strength and conditioning classes for Central female athletes.
“I kick their butt on a daily basis,” Stevens said. “It’s miserable. … I feel like a lot of it’s coming around and showing some improvement, because some of that stuff takes a while to actually show up in the game.”
Indeed, Central’s improvement has been across the board. The Bulldogs have more than doubled their runs per game from 1.7 to 4.2. They’ve lowered their runs allowed per game from 3.3 to 2.7. Players like Emma Lowe and Kizer, who are hitting .280 and .305, respectively, have significantly improved their production at the plate. Sophomore pitcher Bailey McCachren has lowered her ERA from 3.91 to 1.94 and more than doubled her strikeouts from 58 to 120.
“We work hard, and we know that we work hard,” Watson said. “This year, it’s definitely paid off.”
Stevens sees a correlation between the improvement on the field and the team’s mental approach. She noticed an opportunity to fuel that change at the midpoint of region play. After a strong start, Central had dropped a few games but regrouped to remain in the playoff hunt, so Stevens recalibrated the team’s goals. Making the state playoffs wouldn’t suffice anymore, only a region championship.
It’s a philosophy shift for Central athletics that’s underway, Stevens says. Many of the ingredients of a successful Class 7A program are already there for the Bulldogs: a strong community, experienced crop of coaches and a supportive administration.
“We’ve got to just as a school create a winning attitude and have to understand that we can compete,” Stevens said. “It’s more of a mental hurdle than a physical hurdle. Some sports are just going to take longer than others.”
Looks like softball is well on its way.
Brian Paglia is sports editor at the Forsyth County News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 770-205-8976 or follow him on Twitter at @BrianPaglia.