THE GRIND: Forsyth Central Soccer Star Connor CroccoShot by Paul Dybas Edited by Paul Dybas
The first time Connor Crocco watched Forsyth Central’s varsity boys soccer team, he was an eighth grader at Otwell Middle School. It was a scouting trip, of sorts. A life-long soccer player from New Jersey, Crocco wanted to get a look at what was in store for high school. It was senior night for the Bulldogs, and they pulled out a 2-0 win against Osborne.
“Was actually pretty impressed with the team,” Crocco said.
That changed once Crocco got to Central – he played every minute of an 0-16 season.
“It (was) disappointing,” Crocco remembers. “To not win a game, it’s just unheard of, I think. Like, how?”
But Crocco’s own senior night arrived Tuesday in much the way he hoped it would when he watched the Bulldogs play four years ago.
Central (7-8 at press time) is in the state playoffs for the first time since 2003, likely to play Berkmar in the Class 7A first round next week, and Crocco is at the center of the Bulldogs’ new success after an injury derailed his, and Central’s, season a year ago.
Last year looked like it was going to be the culmination of head coach Will Gifford’s vision when he took over Central in 2015.
Gifford’s first season in charge brought minimal improvement. The Bulldogs went 3-12.
But Crocco noticed much deeper changes in the Bulldogs’ program. Gifford introduced himself with an intimidating tone and strict standards, and it earned the ear and respect of the players. They started having team dinners, and cliques on the team disappeared.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Crocco said. “It was still a tough year for us, but I think we worked some things out, and we had hope for the next year.”
Indeed, after a season-opening loss, the Bulldogs went on a seven-game winning streak. It looked like Gifford’s vision was coming to fruition.
But Central’s season turned in a road game at North Springs when Crocco’s season ended.
“I remember running down the sideline planting my right leg, and it just kind of gave out on me,” Crocco said.
Crocco knew right away – he’d tore his anterior cruciate ligament. Soccer has one of the highest rates of ACL injuries of any sport.
Crocco’s absence proved fatal for Central’s postseason hopes. The Bulldogs ended up losing 4-3 to North Springs, the start of a four-game losing streak that left Central out of the region tournament.
Crocco missed the subsequent club soccer season too, a pivotal time in college recruiting for high school juniors.
“A lot of emotion,” Crocco said. “I was pretty sad. Tears fell. But I just looked ahead and looked forward to this year.”
Crocco’s recovery was grueling. He worked every day, whether with his physical therapist or jogging and lifting weights on his own. He devoted special effort to re-strengthening his right quadricep, where doctors had taken the patellar tendon to repair his ACL.
“A lot of leg lifts,” Crocco said.
Crocco was determined. He felt he’d let down his Bulldogs teammates, his club teammates down – things he didn’t feel during that demoralizing freshman season.
“Coach Gifford really made us work for a family and work for one another,” Crocco said.
That feeling was never more evident when Central edged county and region rival West Forsyth in penalty kicks on March 30 to clinch a state playoff spot.
The team swarmed goal keeper Juan Gonzalez, celebrating an accomplishment that seemed impossible just three years ago.
“It means so much to me,” Crocco said. “To be with Coach Gifford for three years and really work us to where we can get to play in the state playoffs, I couldn’t really ask for any more.”