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State of the Program: With 7 new head coaches, Central eager for 2020-21
Since joining a region with other Forsyth County teams such as Lambert, North Forsyth, South Forsyth and West Forsyth, Forsyth Central athletic director Dan Kaplan has seem game attendance and school spirit on the rise. With Denmark joining the region this year, Kaplan expects more of the same. File photo

Forsyth Central Year in Review

Region titles: 0

Team state titles: 0

Individual state titles: 0

Director’s Cup finish: 30th (26th girls; 34th boys)

Best boys state finish: Avery Krippner, Brandon Redecker, 2nd; e-sports, League of Legends, 2nd

Best girls state finish: 6th, cheerleading

It’s difficult for Dan Kaplan to believe 2019 was only a year ago.

A result of the COVID-19 pandemic, one that shut down schools like Forsyth Central across the world in March, and ended promising seasons and careers, time has been thrust like a lever into warp speed.

To remember the Bulldogs’ softball team coming a few outs away from a Sweet 16 appearance, it takes a moment or two.

“It felt like it’s five years ago. It’s just so surreal to start thinking about that,” Kaplan said. “Now, we’re trying to obviously think about, ‘Hey, what’s happening in 2020?’ Are we even going to have fall sports? To go back, it feels so odd.

“I was talking to my wife the other day about it, and I go, ‘I can’t believe that was last year. It feels like it was 1995.’ It felt so long ago.”

Central’s fall was highlighted by its competition cheerleading team’s sixth-place finish at the state competition, followed by a pair of state runners-up in wrestling and a girls basketball team that made the playoffs for the fourth time since 1985.

The 2019-20 school year showed marked progression for Central, and its spring sports were just as promising. 

FCN: First off, I know it feels like a long time ago, but was there anything in particular that stuck out to you about the 2019-20 school year?

Kaplan: “With football, Coach (Frank) Hepler does such a good job with our staff and our kids. He’s got them going in the right direction. So, we’re excited about that. We’re always wanting to move on to the playoffs, but he’s got that program moving in the right direction.”

“Our comp cheer team is always a stalwart. Coach (Amanda) Edwards does a fantastic job. Each year, she gets them primed for Columbus and she expects a state championship every year, which I love. She sets such high expectations. That’s what you want. She drives her kids so hard and she’s compassionate with them and she loves them. She does a fantastic job with our competition cheer program.”

“Our e-sports – how could you not talk about e-sports these days with everything that’s going on. That might be the only sport that survives. Under the direction of Jonathan Lillie, our Rocket League team finished state runner-up.”

“Girls basketball, back to the playoffs. Disappointing that I don’t think we played as well as Coach Hurt wanted them to play. She’s another one of our coaches that demands a lot out of them.”

“First of all, I’d be remiss to say, for our spring athlete, for our seniors, my heart bleeds. I have so much empathy for what they went through, not having a clear-cut end of a season. When this all first started, the baseball coaches, golf coaches, tennis coaches, lacrosse coaches were saying, ‘Hey, after we get back next week,’ just thinking we’re just taking this week off. As it materialized, it started to be, ‘OK, do you think we’ll be back in two weeks, three weeks?’ Then, ‘After spring break, what does our schedule look like?’ I don’t think anyone was prepared for the magnitude, as we’re still dealing with this.”

“More so than anything, it’s our spring seniors I feel so sorry for. They’ll never get that year back. They got robbed of prom, graduation – to a certain degree, because we were able to do a graduation, but not the traditional – going into the playoffs. Our boys soccer team, when this struck, we were ranked 14th nationally. I know polls and everything, but Coach (Will) Gifford had our boys playing outstanding.”

FCN: You mentioned Central will have seven new coaches this school year. Who are those coaches?

Kaplan: “Since I’ve been here, we’ve had very low turnover in head coaches. This year, just the way it shook out, we actually have seven new coaches, which is kind of exciting, because you have some younger coaches and some coaches that are first-year head coaches, and it’s so neat to watch them grow. Then we have some veteran coaches who are taking over a program or just stepping into that position.”

“We have cross country – Nathan Dobbs took over for Shannon Post; we have softball with Kelly Gordon; flag football, we have James Mills; wrestling with Kyle Barr; dance is now a GHSA sport, so Mikayla Moran is going to be a first-year head coach; gymnastics with Chris Woodall; then boys lacrosse with Rob Tomlinson.”

“It’s exciting because a lot of them have had questions, and it’s almost like, ‘Hey, I’ve got my own little team.’ I’m back to being a coach and I’m coaching these seven. It’s invigorating for me. I’m not being selfish, but we have some good, high-energy coaches that we’re fusing into our program.”

FCN: With the football team finishing 4-5 and missing the playoffs a season after winning seven games and making the postseason, did it feel like a step back? And what does that say about the state of the program now that a 4-5 season can even be considered a step back?

Kaplan: “I don’t think any of our coaches will be satisfied until they have a state championship in all of our programs, but that’s great because we’re trying to set high expectations. In my eyes, looking from the outside in, I would never say a step back because I was at (almost) every game.”

“As far as a step back, Coach Hepler will never accept 4-5. He’s too proud of a man, and he’s had too much success everywhere he’s been.”

FCN: Kelly Gordon was one of those hires back in the spring. What did you see from her during the hiring process and what do you expect out of Year 1, especially with it already being a competitive program?

Kaplan: “She’s inheriting a team that I believe graduated nine seniors, and talented – golly. Those girls that left us last year, which I really hoped that they’d move on further. They were devasted when they lost to Parkview. They were planning to go to Columbus.”

“When we spoke to her on the phone, Dr. (Josh) Lowe and Melanie Averitt, our assistant athletic director, we talked to her, hung up the phone and we all looked at each other like, ‘We like her.’ So, I called her back a day or two later and said, ‘Hey, I know everything that’s going on is a little crazy and you’re four hours away, but would you consider driving up here just so we can meet you?’ Actually, that was pre-pandemic, because that was March 7. She drives up, we have half a day with her, we talk to her, and when she leaves, the three of us look at each other and go, ‘Yeah?’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah.’”

“Sunday morning, I came in here just to get some stuff done and to get some stuff set up in the gym. As I was leaving, I was driving out and it was about 2:30, I was driving out and I said, ‘That’s Kelly’s Jeep across the way.’ So, I go over and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And she’s watering the grass, she just got done pressure cleaning the concrete, she’s got folks that have painted the backstop, and she’s putting that X’s down on the bleachers for social distancing. So, she is fully bought in. So excited to have her with us as a young coach that’s learning the way.”

FCN: Shifting to basketball, only four Central girls basketball teams have made the playoffs in the past 35 years, but two were in the past two seasons. How has it been watching that program progress?

Kaplan: “She’s a fantastic job with her kids. She’s got a great nucleus of young ladies that are coming back that we’re so excited about.”

“One thing you watch about a Coach Hurt team is, at the beginning of the year, you’ll be like, ‘Ooh,’ you know? Like, ‘We’ll be OK.’ But if you watch at the end of the year, every year her team gets better as the year goes on. That’s just good, solid coaching.”

FCN: Sticking with winter, Jeremiah Walker was obviously big in building that program up over seven years, then Rusty Transue came in last year and Central had a pair of runners-up. But now Kyle Barr comes in as the third wrestling coach in three years. Are you looking for some more consistency there?

Kaplan: “We met with him and I think one of our questions was the same exact thing. You’ll be the third wrestling coach for some of our kids in the fourth year. He talked about building a family-type foundation, letting the kids know and the families know how much he cares about them. Building an atmosphere of consistency and picking up where he knows Jeremiah built the program, and what Rusty was able to do with some of our kids, and just continuing to progress. I think that’s one of our programs that has had a lot of consistency, so he’s tasked with keeping the consistency, then trying to elevate that program to the next height.”

“I think he’s a good guy to do that. He’s got a very easy-going demeanor. I haven’t seen him coach yet. Some people are very easy going and their coaching demeanor is very different. Now that I’ve kind of seen Kelly Gordon in action a little bit, I’m very excited to see the winter, where we’ll see what Kyle can do with the boys and girls.”

FCN: Central already had Denmark on the schedule in a couple of sports – football, baseball – but now they’re in the region with you guys and the rest of Forsyth County. What do you think that does for the programs at Central?

Kaplan: “When we first got here, you’re talking about a school that was a classification in a 14-team sub-divided region, so we had seven teams in one region and seven in the other subregion. The closest schools to us – Creekview, Sequoyah – they weren’t even in our subdivision, so we didn’t even play them. We’re playing North Atlanta, Riverwood, Kell. There was no connection to the schools we played.”

“So, when other kids would come here, they wouldn’t bring big crowds, our kids didn’t know each other. You now bring in Denmark, West, South, North, Lambert – we lose Milton, but we gain Gainesville – but those other five sister schools, our kids all know each other. The excitement that is generated from that, and the competition – the competition is great. We’re in a great region with a lot of talented athletes and a lot of really, really great coaches.”

“It’s great for competition and it’s great for school spirit. Our student bases get to know each other a little bit. They know each other, so there’s that rivalry – and we never want to step over the line – but kids being kids, they’ll do things and hopefully it’s all above board. It just adds to anything: basketball, baseball, football.”

FCN: Any guidance on what fan attendance is going to look like in the fall?

Kaplan: “As of now, we are asking for everybody to social distance. We are expecting people to wear masks. I don’t want to get too deep into that, because I know that can be a hot political debate. And we’ll know a lot more (Thursday) when we have our 1,900 kids that are supposedly coming here, that we’re asking everybody to social distance.”

“For example (Tuesday) night at volleyball, our head coach Brian Welsch did a great job, got on the mic and said, ‘Please, everyone social distance.’ We have posters on the front of the arena coming in. For the most part, if not everybody – and I wasn’t going to go up and start patrolling, ‘Are you guys family?’ – for the most part, what we did is, we asked everybody to please sit in different rows. And they did – they complied. I think we live in a county where people are respectful of other people’s concerns. I think just about everybody had a mask on. When it comes to that, we will lean on whatever the county dictates. As of right now, unless things change as they do in this world, we’ll be able to have spectators.”