The North Forsyth football team can look back and see almost the exact moment when their season turned from promising to disappointing in 2016.
The Raiders had rolled through their non-region schedule with a 3-2 record, topped Forsyth Central to open the region slate and had blasted Lambert for 26 points in the second quarter to open up a 33-20 halftime lead.
But North stalled out in the second half, managing just a touchdown in the third quarter while the Longhorns stuffed four in after the break. The Raiders dropped their next three games, with none of their scoring totals reaching that of the second quarter against the Longhorns, and head coach Robert Craft’s first season ended without a playoff appearance.
For 2017, the team’s goal is obvious: the postseason. If this year’s squad does so, it will be the first time North had gotten back to the playoffs since 2013, when the Raiders fell to Archer in the first round.
“We want to be the first team to get back,” senior tight end Clayton Bardall said.
If nothing else, this year’s team should score a lot of points. Senior quarterback Ben Bales is set to play his second season at the Raiders’ starting signal-caller in an offense built around his strengths. After spending his early days at North in a wing-T system, Bales took the helm of Craft’s spread attack and averaged 200.5 passing yards per game last year with 15 touchdown passes.
It was a steep ask for Bales to absorb a new system in a single offseason, and he was prone to missed reads and questionable decisions as a result. An extra year to study and improve has left him much more comfortable in the system.
“It feels awesome,” Bales said back in May. “I feel like you know everything front and back.”
Not everyone on offense is back – most notably, the Raiders will have to replace receiver Simon Holcomb, who caught 63 passes for 1,105 yards and was named Forsyth County News Offensive Player of the Year.
Bales admitted that North probably doesn’t have a player that it can just slide into the spot Holcomb occupied. Instead, they’ll depend on a group of younger skill players, like junior Charlie Aiken, junior Bryson Trigg and sophomore Nicky Dalmolin coming together to replicate that production.
Craft also pointed to the emergence of Bardall as an important factor, and he said a goal for this season is to be more diverse in who the Raiders go to for offensive production.
“Simon had an incredible year (and) allowed us to do a lot of good things last year,” Craft said. “But we funneled about everything through him.”
West’s lackluster offensive showings after the Lambert loss were an issue, and a bigger one might have been the Raiders’ defense getting rolled over, letting up 42 points against South and 55 against West. North graduated a productive group of seniors, like Bradley Thomas, Shaun Herock Jr. and Robert Bishop, but the Raiders bring back junior Honus Wagner, who led the team in tackles at safety and linebacker.
Craft also mentioned the importance of Robert Faulkner, calling the senior linebacker the Raiders’ “bell cow,” and said that while North lost plenty of seniors, many of their replacements should at least be advanced in age.
“We feel like we graduated a good bit on defense, but when you go through (the depth chart), it still looks like a lot of seniors, and that’s really what a 7A program should look like,” Craft said.
This coming year looks like it could be a big one for North as a whole, with groups of returning talent in softball, volleyball, girls basketball and on the gridiron. At the same time, Craft doesn’t want the team to forget about the last season and the opportunity they saw disappear.
“My hope is that in hindsight, you look back at how close they were to achieving some of those goals in 2016,” Craft said. “You hope that burns a little fire within them to achieve those things (and) allows us to take one step more.”
First varsity season: 1994
Playoff appearances: 8 (1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2013)
Region titles: 1 (2001)
State titles: none
At North: 4-6, second season.
Overall: 53-27, eighth season.
All games 7:30 p.m. unless noted
Aug. 18 at Sequoyah
Aug. 25 vs. Johns Creek
Sept. 1 vs. Loganville
Sept. 15 at Pickens County
Sept. 22 at Woodstock
Oct. 6 at Forsyth Central*
Oct. 13 at Lambert*
Oct. 20 vs. South Forsyth*
Oct. 27 vs. West Forsyth*
Nov. 3 at Milton*
* Region 5-7A game