Four Forsyth Central baseball players sat at a table inside the school’s new cafeteria this past spring for a ceremony to celebrate the future. They had signed athletic scholarships to play in college. But Central principal Mitch Young took his turn addressing the players to thank them for their past.
The four had helped the Bulldogs baseball program win consecutive region titles in 2015 and 2016, then make the state playoffs again this past season after moving up to the state’s newest and highest classification, Class 7A. But people, Young said, had been wondering if Central could contend in its new competitive environment.
“You proved that we can,” Young said.
More than just the baseball team proved Young’s point. Central boys soccer continued its renaissance under head coach Will Gifford to make the state playoffs for the first time since 2003. Co-ed cheerleading finished fourth in the state. Gymnastics finished fifth. The swimming and diving team sent a school-record 21 athletes to the state meet. Wrestling had two state placers at the traditional state tournament.
To be sure, there’s still more work to be done. Central finished 42nd in the Region Director’s Cup standings in Class 7A, a tough place to be when it’s in the same region as four schools that finished in the top 10.
But the Bulldogs feel like they’re just getting started.
“We want to be up there in the Director's Cup,” Central athletic director Dan Kaplan said. “We want to get there, and we're willing to do the work to get there.”
Forsyth Central Year in Review
Region titles: 0
Team state titles: 0
Individual state titles: 0
Director’s Cup finish: 42nd in Class 7A (37th in girls, 46th in boys)
Best boys state finish: T16th, wrestling
Best girls state finish: Fourth, co-ed cheer
College signees: 18
Athletic participation: 787 (455 boys, 332 girls)
FCN: How did you enjoy being in the new region with the other sister schools in the county plus Milton?
Kaplan: “It was awesome. One, it helped with the school environment, being excited about playing folks. When we used to play North Atlanta or Riverwood or Kell, which are two counties away, kids are like, ‘Well, who's that?’
“Now you throw up there on the marquee we're playing North Forsyth or West Forsyth or South or Lambert, even Milton isn't so far away – it induces and creates rivalry, which we have not had since we've been here.
“So it creates that kind of excitement. And obviously the competition is a high level that we're trying to evolve in to.”
FCN: Who became your biggest rivals this season?
Kaplan: “I think the proximity of North. It might have been because North was the first game on the (football) region schedule. I guess you could say North.
“It certain sports, though, it travels. When baseball was ready to (start region) play, they were really excited to play everybody. They were excited to play Lambert. That was our opening region series. I think it was 32 degrees when we played our first game.
“I think all our kids are excited to play all the different schools, just because we hadn't played them consistently. I think that just built excitement. And pride – our kids want to show they're just as good as the other kids in the county.”
FCN: How would you assess the way the athletic program performed in its first school year in Class 7A?
Kaplan: “We knew jumping from 5A to 7A was going to be difficult and challenging. I think all of our coaches and players now use this past year as a barometer to know exactly where their program stands and what they need to do to compete.
“I think a lot of people were relatively pleased, that they figured, ‘Hey, we can compete.’ Our school's kids are the same kids (as the rest of the county). I was at West for six years and coached there. I've been here now for three. They're the same kids. Finally getting them to play against kids they've grown up with, people that they know, I think it's made for an exciting year.
“I think nothing but better results are on the way with the amount of work our kids and coaches are putting in over the summer time.”
FCN: Getting Frank Hepler for the football program was obviously huge news in the county. How would assess the team’s first season with him in charge?
Kaplan: “We jumped out to a great start at 3-0. I think Frank was getting to know the boys, and the boys were getting to know Frank's system. We ran in to a couple injuries, and they started mounting some more. Then we ran in to region play, and we found out what we're going to need to do.
“I think at the end, when we played Lambert in the last game, on offense we had seven JV kids that were starting that started the beginning of the year on JV offense. It's a double-edged sword – they took their lumps, but they also got some great experience.”
FCN: One of our favorite things this season was watching boys basketball player CJ Smith’s emergence. What was that like for you to watch?
Kaplan: “Basketball was so much fun to go to. CJ works hard. You saw him last year be able to spot up and hit some 3s. I think he elevated his game a little bit more where he was able to drive to the basket. Now you couldn't just play up on him to stop his 3s. Coach (Greg) Dirst would probably say, ‘Yeah, I saw that coming.’
“If you know CJ at all, he's such a great kid. He works in our special education program with our kids. Every lunch he's over there with our special needs class. He has certain buddies, and they love him. He microwaves their food and goes back and sits at their table every day. He sacrifices his own lunch time to be with those kids. Very special kid.”
FCN: What else stood out to you about the athletic year?
Kaplan: “Cheer, one of our most successful programs since I've been here, finished fourth in the state at the state competition in co-ed. The thing that's great about Coach Edwards is we've gone from 10th to 5th to 4th the three years we've been here. So we keep telling her, Hey, that trajectory is the same way. You've only got a couple more positions until you get a ring.
“Swim and dive sent 21 kids to the state championships, which is more than we ever have before. Asheley Bell has done a great job of building that program. She had 53 girls. In the year we took over, I believe they had 20. So she's grown that sport exponentially.
“Wrestling, (head coach) Jeremiah Walker has done a really fantastic job with them. Got nine wrestlers into Sectionals, which was more than we ever had. Five moved on state. Abraham Perez and Sebastian Legarra placed at state. He's excited about this year coming up. He has a very strong junior class coming up.
“Gymnastics came in fifth in the state, which is the third year in a row top 5 in the state.
“Boys soccer was exciting this year. When he first got here, Coach Gifford took over a team that was winless the year before. In his first year, they won 3 games. The next year they won 12. And moving in to 7A they make the playoffs for the first time since 2003. We ran into a buzz saw in Berkmar. Our boys hung in there. He's got that program believing in winning.
“Baseball, our third straight year in the playoffs.
“Our girls lacrosse won more games than they ever had before. They went 8-10. Meaghan McLeod is slowly getting them to learn how to play lacrosse. They're doing a great job.
“And then track and field, Coach Scott Walker took over the program this year, and you can see a little pep in everybody's step. Tons of school records were broken. Our track program is up and coming with Coach Walker and Coach (Shannon) Hays with the girls.”
FCN: How did you like the new facilities added to the school this year?
Kaplan: “We love our facilities. We lack a little bit of space, so we'd love to be able to develop. But I wouldn't trade what this new building has done for our kids.
“We have an East and a West campus. In the past, it's somewhat been a little bit divided. Some teachers might not even see each other being on two campuses.
“We called this the STUB, the Student Union Building. Now it acts as almost a central building where the kids can mingle and socialize, and the teachers can get to know each other. I think it's been great for our school spirit and for our morale.
“We have a great deal of pride. Now you can see it all come together with a connecting piece of our two campuses.”
FCN: You know the GHSA went through a pretty tumultuous year. At one point even, a state legislature brought forth a proposed measure to completely restructure the organization in a fashion very similar to what the state of Florida uses. That didn’t happen, but as a former Florida coach and teacher what do you think about some of those potential changes, particularly as it relates to transfers?
Kaplan: “I haven't been there in nine years, but essentially, the FHSA for Florida, you don't have to prove where you live. Where you start the beginning of the year is where you play. You could be at four schools in four years and not have to go through any transfers or hardship appeals. Where you show up to school is where you end up playing.
“Personally, I don't know how that would affect our county. I don't know how many folks would jump ship. I think it could be dangerous if we just open the door and allow kids to go anywhere they want. I think you lose that loyalty, that if you come in as a freshman that you're going to help that program or sustain if that program has already been developed.
“Personally, I would not like to see us go to that. It's sort of like the Wild, Wild West at times.”
FCN: What do you have your eye on for the future of Central athletics?
Kaplan: “We're always thinking, ‘What do we need?’ My role as an athletic director is essentially how to support coaches. We have 20 head coaches. They're all great. They all understand the importance of athletics.
“Is it great to win? Obviously, it is. But also, I think they understand the end game for all of these kids. It's what you learn from being in an athletic program: character, you learn how to win, you learn how to lose, you learn how to be accountable. I think those coaches incorporate all those other variables and not just focus on win or lose.
“We're all very competitive. We all want to win. But I think a lot of them can see the end game in what we want to do, and I think a lot of our parents are appreciative of how much our coaches care for our kids.”