Dan Kaplan has been working hard to build Forsyth Central’s athletic program up for the last few years, and at times, that process has seemed arduous.
His tenure as the Bulldogs’ athletic director has certainly seen its consistent successes over the last few years, particularly in sports like baseball and soccer. There were others that had lagged behind, though, with football and boys basketball continuing struggles that have lasted for over a decade.
But during the 2018-19 season, much of that irrelevance suddenly vanished, and as it did, Kaplan could feel the excitement in the air as he walked through the hallways.
“You can tell that the athletes walk with a little bit more pep in their step,” Kaplan said. “Some of them are harder to read than others, but you can tell they're excited about their success. And they don't live in a silo – they're very aware of all their peers, which is pretty cool. A lot of people are connected, so it seems.”
All of that began with football, which began the school year by rebounding from a program-worst 0-10 campaign in 2017, beating multiple county opponents en route to making the state playoffs for the first time since 2001. Girls basketball took a step forward by hosting a home playoff game and coming just short of a region championship, and boys basketball made its first playoff appearance in 18 years during the final season of head coach Greg Dirst’s career. Wrestling earned the Region 5-7A traditional championship and came close to earning one in duals as well.
Region titles: 1
Team state titles: 0
Individual state titles: 1
Director’s Cup finish: 30th in Class 7A (26th in boys, 35th in girls)
Best boys state finish: 7th in wrestling (traditional)
Best girls state finish: 6th in coed competition cheerleading
The teams that saw a consistent string of success over the last few years didn’t let up: Baseball, backed by pitchers Mitchell Gross and Jacob Ryan, came just one win short of adding another region title. Both soccer teams returned to the playoffs, and behind All-County Pitcher of the Year Bailey McCachren, softball had a solid season in Paul Cromie’s second year as head coach.
And there were also some individual accolades, with Calan Gizelbach earning the school’s only state championship of the season in the 3200 meter run, and earning the runner-up spot at the state cross country meet back in November.
It all amounted to the best athletic year Central’s had in a long time, and easily the best year the Bulldogs have had since becoming members of Class 7A. Central placed 30th in the Director’s Cup standings, their highest 7A finish to a season.
The key now for Central will be to build on everything they accomplished this year. Wrestling and boys basketball will have to go about that with new head coaches, but it’s a goal that athletes and coaches are already hard at work to accomplish.
Editor’s note: Responses and questions have been edited for length and clarity.
FCN: This year was the most productive one for Central since you made the jump to Class 7A almost three years ago. What do you think were the factors in what everyone was able to collectively do this year?
Kaplan: There's three factors that are involved since I've been here, and it's just evolved. You have the community support. The community is so proud in our town, and they believe that Forsyth Central is a part of that community. I think the parent involvement is a part of that community as well. Whether they're boosters helping out with the officers, or they're volunteers on a Friday night or in the gym on a basketball night, or just bringing their kids to practice with everything that’s needed… I think that’s the first element.
The second part would be our coaches. We've been able to attract some really good coaches, but at the same time, we've been able to retain a lot of quality coaches that we've had here. I think that is improving greatly. Most importantly is our kids, our athletes. They've got the work ethic, a desire to achieve and they want to compete. They love that competition. I think it’s those three factors put together.
FCN: Your programs have seen some success in the last few years, but maybe not as much as they’d like compared to other teams in the county. Was there kind of a sense of looking at everyone else in the region and wanting to catch up in a way?
Kaplan: I think that in the past our depth has been a little smaller than other county schools. When you're in this region, it's a great indicator of where you are just because of how good our schools are in this county. I think we're starting to level off, though. With Denmark opening, I think South came down some and West came down a little bit. North and us I think are pretty close on enrollment, but I think you're going to see in the next year or so, all five of the 7A schools be pretty balanced with numbers. We hit 2500, give or take, last year. I think everybody's still growing. I think everyone's starting to catch up to the other schools as far as enrollment. It helps our depth.
FCN: Football had one of the most surprising seasons of any team in the county in any sport, and it was made more remarkable with how many injuries they dealt with. How do you think they were able to overcome that?
Kaplan: It was an amazing job by the whole staff. They were able to keep the kids together and keep the stability week in and week out. I think it started the previous year... I hate talking about it, but everyone wants to talk about it because (we had) such an improvement from an 0-10 season. But if you go back to that '17 season, they lost so many games by two points, overtime, three points, a touchdown, one possession... For that staff to keep those kids together that season, believe it or not, I think it motivated them to say, ‘Hey, we're going to show you we're not an 0-10 team.’ I think that was the fuel that really pushed that team, to know that they were that close. They just needed some breaks, and (if) you look at the games this year, a lot of the breaks went our way. It just created a wave of momentum, which was really cool to sit back and watch. I credit the kids and that staff for wanting to be good and wanting to be great.
FCN: After a productive season like the one you just went through, what do you see in the immediate future of Central’s athletic program?
Kaplan: I think the expectations have been growing. I think now, a lot of the programs that are tasting success, I think what they have to understand now is ‘How do we maintain success?’ We have so many programs now that have made the playoffs, some annually like boys and girls soccer and baseball. They're annually making the playoffs and they've learned how to keep that consistency. Some (more) teams are now making the playoffs, and we have some programs that are knocking on the door. Our boys lacrosse team won more games than they had in the school's history. So there's other programs that are coming right behind football and basketball and the other teams that are breaking through. I think the whole key is finding out, ‘How do we maintain this and be consistent?’