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Forsyth Central baseball's region championship was among the many highlights for the Bulldogs during the 2014-15 school year. - photo by File photo

Editor's note: The 2014-15 school year is over, so FCN sports editor Brian Paglia sits down with athletic directors at local high schools to talk about the past season.

From the very beginning, the athletic year at Forsyth Central felt different.

There were changes in the high school’s administration – a new principal (Mitch Young), a new athletic director (Dan Kaplan) – but the most obvious changes came on the field and court, and it was obvious right away.

The football team posted its first winning season in 13 years. The boys cross country team catapulted to a No. 1 ranking in Class AAAAA. The volleyball team went from five wins to 20. Competition cheer finished 10th at the state championships.

“We had those four sports really kick off the fall, setting the tone for excitement, being positive and winning,” Kaplan said. “I thought that was important.”

The success stories kept going at Central – girls basketball staying in first place for several weeks, the baseball team winning the Region 7-AAAAA championships – and people began to wonder: what’s going on at Central?

Forsyth County News sports editor Brian Paglia talked with Kaplan about making the transition from West Forsyth to Central, making the jump to Class AAAAAA and what’s in store for next season.

Paglia: In your first year in this position at this school, what are your impressions of how the athletic season went?

Kaplan: “I thought it was great. I thought the staff here at the school was extremely welcoming, supportive and great people. Really great people.

“The kids – awesome. You can’t ask for a better kid, or quality kid that is hard-working in the classroom, hardworking on the fields or court – just a great environment.”

“My main goal for the whole year was, one, to build relationships with everybody here, but mainly the kids, and secondarily with the kids. My primary goal was to come in and build a relationship with the coaches, because through that, if I built a relationship with the coach I got to know the kids, because once I got to know the coaches a little more I got to know more of the kids. Building relationships was the ultimate goal, and for me to support them in any manner needed to be successful.”

Paglia: How did you go about doing that?

Kaplan: “In the summer, I had every coach come in for a one on one. I sat down. I did an initial one-on-one meeting. I didn’t want to call it an interview, because if anything they were interviewing me to get to know me. 

“But I would sit down. I went through things such as what their athletic fees were, practice locations, practice times, who their assistant [coaches] were, who’d they report their scores to, how they do their tryouts, how their booster club is run, fundraising. …

“We just sat down just getting to know each other, so that’s where I could initialize our relationship. Just seeing what they needed.”

Paglia: If there was a common theme among all the coaches, what did you find they needed?

Kaplan: “The main goal was some guidance and some support from me. I really think in my first year I was learning more about what their needs were, so I didn’t really know what they needed. Now, coming full-circle and doing the budget reports and all the other good stuff for the end of the year, I have a much more comfortable feel of how I can help them.”

Paglia: Well as far as on the field and court accomplishments, which one stood out to you?

Kaplan: “The first thing I think getting right out of the gate was football, getting them to set the tone for our school for the environment of winning. To have the first winning season in 13 years, I think it kind of got everybody in the school excited. In that same time period our volleyball team was winning. They had won 20 games where as the previous year they won five. They started getting a little bit of that fever and started believing, hey we can win. Cross country, the boys team finishing fifth at the state meet. All in that same little time period – and competition cheer finishing 10th at state – we had those four sports really kick off the fall, setting the tone for excitement, being positive and winning. I thought that was important.

“Then we got into winter. We had three top 12 finishes at state in swim and diving. Girls basketball, they were fantastic. They were in first place for most of the season, and then region tournament lost by one point in the last game on a last-second play not to make the playoffs. I look forward to them making the next step this year with Coach Hurt’s guidance and taking that next step into the state tournament.

“And then spring, baseball with the region championship. Hannah Walker doing so well finishing eighth in the state golf tournament. Gymnastics finishing fourth in the state two years in a row. Our track team sent three individuals to four different events at the state meeting, so that was exciting. Our girls tennis team made the region tournament for the first time in three or four years.

“So there were a lot of positive spin. Our lacrosse teams made progress, maybe not with the record as much as the production on the field. We’re looking for real good futures for them. Those were both brand new coaches. We had a new coach for boys soccer in Will Gifford, and again, maybe not the record showed, but so much positive feedback for all four of those sports – boys soccer, girls soccer and boys and girls lacrosse – that so many parents came to us and said how more developed [players] were than previous years just based off what their coaches were getting done. We’re looking for good things for next spring as they get a baseline.”

Paglia: What did you think of the new region?

Kaplan: “The schools are fine. Fourteen, including ourselves, finally established schools. The issue we had was just the separation. You’re talking about teams from Dalton all the way down to us and everything in between. When we meet at Cass High School for the central location, and it’s an hour and 20 minutes away for us, it’s taxing.

“It’s hard and difficult to make any true rivalries when you’re that far away [from opponents]. It’s a very competitive region, which we’re happy to be in at this point. Looking forward to possibly moving up to AAAAAA where we can be with our other sister schools and I think revisit some rivalries that haven’t been around for a while and establish new ones we haven’t had a chance to compete against in most of our sports.”

Paglia: The previous regime was on the record as hesitant about moving up to AAAAAA, but you guys embrace it?

Kaplan: “We embrace it, without a doubt. And our coaches are the same way. I think it would build excitement. Just to have a Friday night where four nights on the schedule you’re either going to a Forsyth County school or they’re coming to you. Selfishly, it would help our gates, which is important to the budget of an athletic department.

“But more importantly than that I think it would spark interest in the community, which you have at the other four schools. When South goes to Lambert or West goes to North you have that built in excitement, which we have with our Central Crazies. I can’t wait to unleash the Central Crazies on another Forsyth County school, all in good spirit.

“We relish it. We hope that it all works out, and I think it would be good for our community. From our perspective, just an infusion of excitement and rivalry we would definitely love to see happen. We’ll go into this year obviously staying in Region 7-AAAAA and doing the best we can with the competition that’s there and hopefully doing very well in multiple sports. And then hopefully using that as a spring board to move into AAAAAA and closer rivalries, even with the north Fulton schools. Those schools are relatively close to us as well.

“One, it would cut down the travel, which would help expenses, but, again, more importantly, it’s hard to get the kids sometimes amped up for a game that’s an hour and a half away where they’ve never met these kids as opposed to playing a school that’s 20 minutes away; you’re going to see them Saturday at the mall or somewhere. It just gives that great feel for not just Friday nights but any of our venues. ”

Paglia: What were some of the tangible things you did this year to help school spirit?

Kaplan: “We did a few pep rallies. We tried to do one for each sport season. We also recognize all our students within the school, not just athletics. We tried to recognize all the academic accomplishments. Like our engine team, were second in the nation in Indianapolis.

“What we actually created this year is what we called the Dawg Walk. Anybody who was going to a state competition, we would almost do an impromptu pep rally. The first few we did were for boys cross country, competition cheer and for our engine team. Even our one-act play, which went on to be state runner-up.

“We got all of them and got the whole school on the practice field during an IF and lined the whole practice field with as best a tunnel as you can get with close to 2,000 kids and three people out there telling them where to line up. We marched the state competitors through there and everybody was giving them a Dawg Walk.

“We’re looking to continue that next year. We’re hoping to have a bunch of Dawg Walks. I think the kids bought into it and had a good time. A little tradition that we’re trying to instill.”

Paglia: So what are some of your grand plans going forward?

Kaplan: “Like I said, the first year here my main goal was to build relationships. In this next year, we have a rebranding campaign, which a lot of people are now aware of. We brought the F back to our logo to represent the past, Forsyth County High School.

“It’s sort of been unleashed now in these past few weeks. Our coaches and kids are buying into it. There’s a bit of energy surrounding it. I think a lot of people are excited about it. So we’ll see.

“So that’s the second-year plan. We have a lot of work to do with our facilities if we want to rebrand it correctly. It takes funds, which are sometimes difficult to accumulate. But as we head into the summer now, with the new phase of construction happening – we’re going to be getting a new fieldhouse, which will be great for football and spring sports to use – just having a new facility out front with new media center, new cafeteria, new admin building which will be built off of Elm Street. That’ll have a whole new direction to the school. That’ll be the front of the school now.

“So we’re trying to put it all together. Next year is our 60th anniversary of the school, so we have a lot of 60th anniversary plans involved with some football games, basketball hopefully with another Domecoming and trying to infuse some of that into baseball.

“I guess the second year is trying to grasp all the concepts that we’re trying to bring back with the history and then establish with a new tradition and try to bring it all together with the rebranding and the belief in the school and community.”

Paglia: I know you promoted girls soccer assistant Angela Camp to head coach. Any other head coaching changes?

Kaplan: “We are extremely fortunate to have retained all of our head coaches, except for coach Tagan Hatchett, who got an opportunity to go closer to home. She’s more of a basketball coach and she’d done us a great service by being our girls soccer coach the past few years but wanted to pursue the possibility of getting into a girls head coaching job for basketball.

“And coach Camp, when we hired her last year, with the idea that coach Hatchett was going to look toward basketball as her priority, and she’s strong in both. When we hired an assistant for her last year, we did it with an understanding that we’re looking to hire somebody who could step right in and maybe take it to the next level. So we’re very comfortable and pleased to have coach Camp step right in.

“We’re fortunate to have great coaches here. I think that’s been a huge asset to so much of the success that we’ve had. The head coach’s guidance and character and abilities are stupendous here. We have a great collection of head coaches. And assistants, but the head coaches of all of our programs are great.”

Paglia: Are there any big-picture athletic issues that you guys are keeping an eye on?

Kaplan: “We have started several feeder programs with the hope and belief that we’re going to be in AAAAAA soon and to get our kids ready for competition. Basketball, volleyball. Softball has had one. We have a football feeder program the last few years which is run by the Cumming Junior Bulldogs, which is helping. Wrestling has done great feeder programs. Swim is looking into developing one. Some of the other sports, they’re so difficult to do a true feeder team, because they’re doing a lot of club stuff.

“We came in asking each program if you don’t have a feeder team to start developing one. Some of our coaches jumped all over that and got it going right away. And the ones that were already established, we just asked them, hey let’s amp it up a little bit and see what can be done, just so when kids come into our school they’ll have a concept and understand what our expectations are and even just the fundamentals of what our coaches are teaching. We love our future Dawgs, and we want them to be involved.”