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STATE OF THE PROGRAM: Forsyth Central continues raising expectations
CJ Winkler
Forsyth Central senior CJ Winkler, right, celebrates April 21 during the Bulldogs’ 3-2 win against Lambert. - photo by David Roberts

This time last year, Forsyth Central’s spring sports teams wondered what could have happened had COVID-19 not canceled their season.

This season, they got their answer. 

A region championship in boys soccer, a Final Four run in baseball, nine track and field athletes competing at the state meet, and plenty of reason for optimism heading into the 2021-22 school year. 

The Bulldogs also produced an individual state champion in senior wrestler Avery Krippner, and they also captured the first region championship in girls flag football and finished second in the state in coed competition cheer. 

Central athletic director Dan Kaplan helped guide the school into Class 7A five years ago. The acclimation period is over. The Bulldogs are here to stay – and win.

FCN: What was it like from your perspective during the baseball team’s Final Four run?

Region titles: 2 [Boys soccer, girls flag football]

Team state titles: 0

Individual state titles: 1

Director’s Cup finish: 33rd in Class 7A [30th in girls, 34th in boys]

Best boys state finish: Final Four, baseball

Best girls state finish: Second, co-ed cheer 

College signees: 19

Kaplan: “So exciting. Kevin McCollum deserves all the credit that he won’t take … he is just the easiest-going guy, mild-mannered, doesn’t let big stuff bother him. He’s a great baseball coach. Of course, extremely happy for the kids. They wanted to go to the finals, which would have been awesome.”

“I think what the baseball program and some of the other programs have helped do is raise the expectations around the school. A few years back when we first got here, getting into 7A, there was a lot of, ‘Oh, wow. Are we going to be able to survive?’ It’s going to take some bumps and we’re going to get through it, and we’ll learn how to participate and compete. A few years after that, our cliché was ‘progress and respect.’ Now I think we’re raising expectations. A lot of our programs are doing better. Some can still do better, but they all have the expectation of, ‘Let’s get to the Final Four. Why not?’ I think them showing the success that our school can have shows other programs that anything is attainable.”

“The kids were great kids. We had some really good players. What struck me was on senior night – we had 19 seniors – and when you do senior night, they come out and, ‘Here’s Joe Smith. His favorite memory is …’ and a lot of them were when they won the JV championship in 2019, because they didn’t have a season as juniors. Some of those kids as sophomore didn’t play on varsity, so their real one taste of varsity was this year.”

FCN: It’s kind of a similar story with boys soccer, which had its season canceled last year but went on a deep playoff run of its own this year.

Kaplan: “Last year’s team was very good, and we had a lot of seniors from last year’s team that didn’t get to finish. At this point last year when Will [Gifford] said, ‘Dan, I don’t know what our team is going to look like. We lost a lot of key components. You know I’m going to coach my behind off, but I just don’t know how we’re going to do.’ I thought, ‘Ok, Will, are you sandbagging me?’”

“Will’s boys play for him very hard. They just had the right chemistry. If you watch some of the teams we played, and if you looked across the way, they had some very talented kids. But our kids played very well together and we coached very well, obviously. We were disappointed, as was Will and as were the kids, that the Final Four wasn’t all four Forsyth teams. Here we are the region champs, and then the other three got in, which was great for our community and our county. I just wish we weren’t the first guys out. That would have been really cool.”

Michael Florea
Forsyth Central senior Michael Florea, center, is joined by teammates as the Bulldogs applaud the fans after capturing the Region 6-7A championship. - photo by David Roberts

FCN: Then you have girls soccer, which made the playoffs this year with a ton of young talent.

Kaplan: “Coach [Angela] Camp is so excited with the young talent she has. We had a two or three freshmen and a couple sophomores too. We made a run five years ago to the Elite Eight with her leadership, so our two soccer programs are in such good shape with such good leadership, both from a coaching standpoint and from the kids. I think those young kids playing so much this year, they’re going to have invaluable experience and leadership ability to hopefully guide us to bigger and better things.”

“Again, as I said about baseball, our two soccer programs are raising expectations throughout the school and showing all of our programs, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ It’s just great to see that coming from seven years ago, when we were in a region with teams that were all over the state, literally. I think we scrimmaged North in football one time, and it was so exciting. Now it’s just neat to see that we can compete, and we are competing in multiple sports.”

FCN: Was there anything else that stuck out to you during spring?

Kaplan: “Well, boys golf made sectionals. Coach [William] Hobbs and those boys – we have a lot of young kids in that. He is so excited with those kids. He’s a very outgoing guy and he’s very encouraging to the boys, and I think the boys really like him. They’ve done a really good job. They made sectionals for the first time in I don’t even know how long. I know we have a 1975 state banner up there for boys golf, so I don’t know if it goes back that far.”

“In track and field, we sent nine different kids to the state finals. Coach [Scott] Walker has turned that program around since starting four years ago as the head coach. He is such a great motivator. He sends a weekly update on everything that happened. Whether you’re the kid that finished fourth in the 400 as Kieryn Jeter did, or if you did your personal best, he mentions everybody. I’ve actually asked him to mentor a couple of our younger coaches on how to promote your program and how to be so positive. He’s done a fantastic job with track and field.”

“In gymnastics, we missed out on going to the state finals by one seed, but we still sent six girls to the individuals. I think we had to most individuals qualify, which was another nice thing for spring sports.”

FCN: Girls basketball is another program that has seen recent success with back-to-back region championship appearances from 2018-20. Antonio Wade now inherits that program. What did you see during the hiring process?

Kaplan: “His ability to lead and his enthusiasm. He’s got great energy to him and he’s a proven winner. Something in his interview when he spoke to us – he was the head boys coach at Forest Park, I believe, and he was almost influenced into going into girls coaching. A couple people approached him and I think he turned it down, and then one of his mentors said, ‘Just come out and do it with me and see what it’s like.’ I think he did it at an AAU tournament and he said, ‘Oh, I love this.’ He said he loves coaching the girls; just his enthusiasm and passion for the game.”

FCN: When we spoke this time last year, we talked about Kyle Barr and what you thought about him during the interview process. Less than a year later, the wrestling program produced a state champion in Avery Krippner and a runner-up in Zach Redecker. 

Kaplan: “Avery Krippner moved backward two years ago when he lost in the state finals. If I remember correctly, he was up in the second period two years ago and it was a tough match. He never told me this, but you could just see that he dedicated his year, like, ‘I want to be in that position again, but I don’t want to have any doubt.’ So the kid goes undefeated and had a great year. He’s a very humble kid. When you talk to him it’s a lot of ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir.’ I had a great picture of him that we shared – I don’t know if his mom took it – he’s getting his hand raised and you can just see the excitement coming out of him. To see a kid fulfill that with all the hard work he put in and going to workouts and going to the extra practices and working with Coach Barr, it’s such a great feeling to see a kid earn his reward.”

“For Zach, too, his brother was in the same spot the previous year. He lost in the semis. We were really hoping to have a second champion, but Zach had a fantastic area tournament, then moving into the state, he fought his way out of the loser’s bracket and worked his way back in.”

Avery Krippner
File photo

FCN: Also in winter, esports finished as the state runner-up in Rocket League. 

Kaplan: “Then they made it to the Elite Eight in the spring. Esports is so funny, because there are really two seasons. It goes fall, a little bit of a break, then it runs all of spring. I’m still learning esports, but I always want to give them a little bit of love and that we’re proud of Coach [Jonathan] Lillie and how he’s got them seemingly always in position to win a state championship.”

FCN: Then, not long after that, cheerleading finished with a state runner-up of its own. How does cheer fit into Central’s mantra of raising expectations?

Kaplan: “Our comp cheer program is one of those that raises expectations. Since we got here, we haven’t had to tell them, ‘Hey, you know you can really be a [top program].’ They’ve been in the top 10 every year we’ve been here. At one point, they went from six to five to four to three. We actually finished first, but there was a technicality, and when it came down to it, the announcer was announcing, ‘This is the closest year ever.’”

“Amanda Edwards does a fantastic job with that program. She really does. Sort of like we were talking about Antonio, she’s very disciplined with them but at the same time still able to love them. It’s a tough balance as a coach. At certain times you’re going to have to discipline your kids or tell them, ‘This is how we’re going it,’ but you have to keep the respect. She’s got a great balance with that. It would have been really nice to see us win a state championship there. She actually had her first child a couple weeks ago, so that would have been a great year for her. We talked about baseball, boys soccer has developed those expectations, girls soccer has developed it [and] competition cheer has always had that bar raised. They just want to get over it.”

FCN: Volleyball finished third in the area and beat Duluth in the first round of the playoffs. How have you seen that program grow?

Kaplan: “Coach [Brian] Welsch came to us six years ago and he has worked really hard establishing a feeder program. Every school that we ever play – whenever Mitch Young would speak to another principal, or when our assistant principal would speak to another assistant principal – they would say, ‘Oh yeah, we know him. You got a good coach.’ He’s finally got the kids – he’s got a really good group of kids – to buy into his system and to do what he’s asking them to do and to play hard. It was very satisfying to see that be the next program to break through. Brian and I have had a few talks about how now that you’re there, the hardest thing is staying there. Don’t be satisfied, ‘Hey we won a playoff match. That’s awesome!’ When we played Roswell, you saw where we wanted to go to because they were really good.”

Sarah Pipping
Forsyth Central junior Sarah Pipping spikes a ball Tuesday during the Bulldogs 2-1 win against Cambridge. - photo by David Roberts

FCN: What’s the energy level like with the football program now that David Rooney is taking over the program?

Kaplan: “He’s got them very excited. David’s a great motivator. I think the defensive kids know this about David because he’s been their coordinator for three years, but the thing I’ve always respected about David is that he knows how to command a kid’s attention but he knows how to talk to him at the same time. He can communicate extremely well with them. He’s not yelling or parading around – he’s asking questions. He’s the most honest and direct person I’ve ever met without coming across as a jerk. He’ll just say, ‘Why’d you do that?’ And the kids know that it’s not being threatening. He’s asking them, ‘Why did you do that so we can fix this.’”

FCN: Financially, how important was it to host those six football games last season? Did it help mitigate some of the potential loss that came with COVID-19 protocols such as reduced attendance?

Kaplan: “I’m curious what others have said, and I think I have the same frame of mind, which is we didn’t make as much money as we did in the past. When we were playing North, the crowd was not as big. It was a good-sized crowd, but we looked around and it was in the height of the pandemic, and me and Mitch were on the sideline looking around and it was just, ‘Where is everybody?’ He had to remind me that not everybody is still comfortable, and this was October when there was so much uncertainty. He had to remind me that people are still uncomfortable to come sit down. Everybody had ample opportunity if they really wanted to sit away from people, they could because the stadium was so big. And some of our kids may not have been allowed to come because some of their parents may have said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry but you’re not going.’ 

“From a financial perspective, the year sucked. A lot of our athletic budget is based off of what football does. The game against Blessed Trinity – I hate to say a money-maker, and I don’t want to think of it that way because it’s the sport. The administrative part of this job is, you have to look at everything, analyze and say that Blessed Trinity game – they would have traveled. I feel bad for South, because we had to cancel the game at the end of the year. We talked to [South Forsyth principal] Laura [Wilson] about it and she understood. We had 23 kids out and we were talking about bringing freshmen to play against men. She totally understood, but I felt for her, because that was a gate for her that she didn’t get. I think every school in the county had their problems. With basketball, we didn’t make any money on basketball this year. We actually lost money for the first time. I go back and look at that North game we had that was right at Christmas break, where schools were online for the last week and they said only parents could come. We’re playing North, who’s usually a pretty good rival and a good game, a good gate, and the home game we had against North, there’s no kids allowed.”

“There was a lot of creative financing, which my concern moving forward is that we always use our finances from the previous year. When Mitch and I first got here, it was more fall billing, which is what a lot of football programs would do. They would buy all of their stuff in the summer and pay it back with what they made it the fall, which was the agreement. Mitch said he didn’t want to operate that way. He wanted to operate on the money we had. The money we made this year going into next year, financially it is less. I don’t want to say significantly less, but there’s less amounts of funds available for this coming year, which always makes me nervous to have enough money for big things to be taken care of. That is a concern. That’s part of, I think, the collateral damage of COVID, is the crowd’s not able to come as they were in the past and people being maybe a little skittish about coming out, which I totally respect and understand. Hoping that this year there won’t be as many restrictions so that the following year, which would be 2022-23, we might be able to get more settled than we’re going to be this year.”

FCN: Lastly, with East Forsyth drawing from Central and North, what kind of immediate impact are you anticipating?

Kaplan: “We’re going to get a chunk of kids taken out. I think North is in the same boat. I think North is losing more kids than we are. I know we’ve lost some kids in certain programs, which is never good, but you also love to see the growth of the county. When West opened, it was such a big thing because you had only had Forsyth County High School, then you had South and North. Then West opened it was like, ‘Wow, we’ve got a fourth high school!’ Then Lambert was quick to follow after, then you get Denmark coming in. To have another high school in the county just shows the growth. I hate that we have to lose any kids, and it’s kind of steered to some programs more than others. It’s a sign of the times and the growth. I guess I’d rather have that than go back to – because if you remember right after West opened is when we hit the recession. Growth was staggered, and that was part of the problem here, where Forsyth Central wasn’t able to build back in because of the housing crash. Then people didn’t move back into Central for a while.”

“It just shows your community is a good place to live if they continue building schools. It’s not just building schools for quantity; every school in our county, they have the ability to have a quality education. That’s why people are moving here in droves. When I have people moving in, or people talking about moving in, or a friend says, ‘Hey, I want to move up there. Where should I live?’ You could throw a dart at the county, and every school that you land at is a quality education. A very good education.”

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Photo courtesy Mitchell Martin