Dan Kaplan knows the adjustment hasn’t been a quick one, but he’s confident that the athletic teams at Forsyth Central are getting there.
When Region 5-7A was formed two years ago and all of the county’s public schools were finally together in one region, the Bulldogs lagged behind for a number of reasons. Their football program was coming off a fallow period, and head coach Frank Hepler had just arrived for his first season. Central was the smallest school by enrollment in the region. And those disadvantages were evident in the Regions Director’s Cup standings from 2016-17, where the Bulldogs were the lowest-scoring Forsyth County team.
But while it hasn’t come by leaps and bounds, progress was visible for Central over the last year. Central inched up to 37th in the Class 7A standings, after finishing 42nd last year. Programs like soccer, girls soccer and boys cross country made breakthroughs, while the baseball team continued to be a standard-bearer for the school, claiming a No. 2 playoff seed after starting year 2-10.
And with Central’s population still growing and its head coaches mostly staying put, Kaplan sees even better days ahead.
“With the school becoming larger, we're having more student athletes come out,” he said. “… The coaching we have here is awesome. We have great coaches in place, we have great kids in place, but I think that third and final part of the equation to be competitive is now, we're going to be start to be able to build our depth.”
Editor’s note: Responses and questions have been edited for length and clarity.
FCN: You have one of the most decorated and well-known coaches in the county with Frank Hepler with the football program. He hasn’t produced an immediate turnaround, but what are your thoughts where he and that program are at now? Do you have a timeline in mind?
Kaplan: We're excited. We're really excited. (As for) timeline, coach Hepler would tell you it's yesterday, but we have no timeline as far as saying, ‘oh, playoffs,’ and all that. If you look back at last year, our five non-region games, we had two overtime games in a row … We were in every single game, so I'm not talking coach-speak here by any means, (but) we could have been easily 4-1 and 5-0 as 0-5 in non-region games, easily, watching each game each week and the frustration mount for some of the kids, saying ‘Wow, coach, we're right there.’ And the kids believe that, so going into region play after realizing we were right there with those five non-region games, and heading into the region games, we went toe to toe with Milton. We were 0-0 heading into the fourth quarter with Milton.
So you could see that the perks are coming, and with the growth of our population, we're getting kids in. Coach Hepler has been able to hire some quality coaches this past year where the staff is now starting to round out. They're excited ... They're there from 8:00 to 11:00. There's 125 kids down there working their tails off. We're excited. I've known coach Hepler for a long time, and he takes to heart last season, not having a win, but they're working just as hard if they were 10-0 or 0-10, and we're looking for great things from them this year.
FCN: With Ethan Hankins being as big of a draft prospect as he was, that brought a lot of publicity and eyes onto the baseball program and the school in general. How did you feel about the way that everybody dealt with and reacted to that?
Kaplan: I think there was a lot of presure for Ethan, having all these eyeballs on him. I thought everybody handled it well; his peers knew what was going on. I think he put undue pressure on himself at times, how he wanted to perform. He's an excellent pitcher, obviously, by being picked in the first round. But I think you hit the nail on the head -- I thought it brought good exposure for all of our kids. It showed teams coming to visit, wow, almost 30 to 40 scouts here watching kids, and scouts come to watch one kid, but they see another kid out of the corner of their eye, so it's great for all the kids being exposed to having all the scouts there. I think it was an exciting environment. I think it was beneficial for everybody involved.
FCN: GHSA executive director Robin Hines recently expressed his support for reducing the number of classes for athletics. Do you have an opinion or stance on how you think things should look?
Kaplan: Not especially. Mainly because what we were talking about earlier was we spent so much time, when we first got here in 5A, being bounced all over the place, not knowing or having a rivalry, not having any consistency in who we were playing. We were in a 14-team region our first two years. That's a lot of teams to try to build rivalries with and have good crowds come, so we're thrilled that we're in the region we're in.
I think with our population, we'll be in the largest classification anyways, so we'd much rather, and I understand that if you squeeze it down and lose one classification, that there might be more teams involved. But as long as we're involved with our sister schools int he county, we're excited. I don't think it has a lot of bearing on where we would land. Now if you were talking about us possibly being pushed out, if it went down to 6A, then we would want to stay in the largest classification, because we feel like we are building something.