Right from the start, North Forsyth athletic director Nathan Turner could tell it would be a good year for the Raiders.
Turner felt the football’s team first playoff appearance in three seasons was the spark for the athletic year.
"Coach [Jason] Galt came in and changed the mindset of the entire football program," Turner said. "Anytime you can change the mindset at the beginning of a season, it kind of rolls down as the school year goes on."
Indeed, the winter featured the girls’ basketball team winning its first region championship in school history and reaching the Elite 8 of the Class AAAAAA tournament. The Raiders won county championships in wrestling and boys’ track and had postseason appearances in softball and swimming.
Forsyth County News sports editor Brian Paglia talked with Turner about the Raiders’ hilarious student section during girls’ basketball state playoff games and some of the controversy the Georgia High School Association endured this past season.
What stands out to you about what North Forsyth athletics was able to accomplish?
"I think we turned some corners. We turned some corners in some areas that could totally shape our athletic department into a new direction and new era."
"Football started it all off. Last year, Coach [Jason] Galt came in and changed the mindset of the entire football program, and anytime you change the mindset at the beginning of a season, it kind of rolls down as the school year goes on."
I’ve heard from athletic directors over the years that the football team’s season can set the tone for the rest of the school year.
"It sets the tone for behavior. It sets the tone for attitude. It sets the tone for so much. And he was able to do that. That key piece I think set in when we won at Chattahoochee in football [a 24-7 victory on Sept. 23, 2013]. We beat Cherokee, won a couple other games and all of sudden you go down there and beat Chattahoochee. I think kids said, ‘Hey, we can compete.’ And it started carrying on to other sports. Football making the playoffs after struggling like we had the past couple of years set us off in a new direction.
"Then you roll into basketball season, and the success of our girls’ basketball program really built some enthusiasm. That being so big, and getting that first girls’ basketball region championship in school history after knocking on the door for two years like we had been, that’s another area where it’s like you’re climbing the mountain and you’re finally getting closer to the top."
I think the thing that stood out to me the most about your girls’ basketball playoff run was the student section.
"It was the most lively thing I have ever seen. Well, you see, it’s contagious. It builds, and it just kept growing and growing. If we could have played that Archer [state quarterfinals] game at home. Our student body bought in, our fans bought in. I say this a lot, but the Coal Mountain community is a committed group that buys in, and they pour it out in droves. That was a raucous crowd."
I was really impressed with the originality of their antics, especially when they mimicked the opposing coaches.
"Yes, yes. He held his hands out, they held their hands out. He’d squat, they’d squat. You know that’s good clean humor. That’s fun."
What other teams stood out to you?
"Wrestling is solid, and the wrestling team’s best days are to come. The incoming freshman class has so many junior wrestling champions coming out of the junior programs that that’s an upcoming program that’s going to explode. Coach [Travis] Jarrard’s already got success. Now that success is going to get even bigger. So we’re excited about that.
"I got to be honest, our two lacrosse programs got better this year. They got better, and they’re competing. I’m excited about the direction that both lacrosse programs are going.
"Our soccer programs have returning players now. That’s one of the biggest things that we’ve not had in the past that we have now. We’d get to the point with a program where our athletes have graduated. We’re now at the point where we have a good solid core of senior athletes, and when they do graduate there are others who can step in and take their place, so we’re getting into that area now where we appreciate it. Seniors, you’ve done a great job. It’s time for the next group to take control. We’ve got programs now. We’re excited about that, that each program is kind of establishing itself. I’m excited about the upcoming freshmen in all of our sports. I’m excited about this junior class being leaders.
"I feel that our baseball team will be in the mix next season. A couple of tough breaks down the stretch or they would’ve been in the playoffs this year. Our track programs have been strong. We’ve got some young talent there that I think is fixing to blossom and bloom. We got some incoming golfers who are really good.
"You’re starting to see some smaller sports, too, start to turn the corner a little bit. I know people get tickled about our [state championship] bass team, but that’s a staple of this community. It’s a pride factor."
What do you make of how the new Region 6-AAAAAA looks?
"It’s OK. You don’t have to look for a couple [football] games. Northview and Habersham Central would be teams who we’d be OK playing as a non-region opponent, so we welcome them into the region, excited about that. We’ve already been playing Northview in a lot of things. Habersham will be new. It’ll be a little different, but you get to go back up north and we haven’t done that since 2001 when we were in Class AAA and we used to play a lot of the northern schools like Gilmer, Pickens and Fannin. … We’re kind of reuniting some old rivals that used to play years ago."
What are some issues you’re keeping your eye on for the next 2-5 years or so?
"I think you got to look at we’re [Forsyth County] still growing. The numbers in this county, and even in this school, show that we’re still growing. And you have to look at how is growth affecting your programs? You hope it’s affecting you positively with getting more participation and more involvement in programs, and you keep building. … You have to make sure that each coach understands that the numbers are growing, so the drive needs to be there within the program itself."
What about just the number of kids you can offer opportunities to?
"That becomes tough, because as programs get bigger kids want that playing time. It’s hard to accommodate. That’s another thing you have to look at with the growth."
I mean, you can’t have 200 football players, right?
"You can’t have 200 football players, but I promise you this, if you have 200 football players the chances are you’re going to be pretty good, because you can pick some good talent out of that. You have to watch the attrition rate with numbers. You can’t guarantee playing time. But you can guarantee everybody the opportunity to anyone who wants to work hard to get that opportunity to play."
"Anytime you get more numbers, everything’s going to cost more. Travel is going cost more. Booster clubs are going to cost more because of the fees with kids. You’re going to have to buy more equipment. You have to be cautious of that. You hope that your gate numbers increase to be able to offset that. Winning takes care of that as well, because the gate and the crowds come."
It seems you found another creative revenue source in the Raider Network?
"Yeah, the Raiders Sports Network. That’s going to be a little different this year. I think it’s going to be $65 or $75 pay-per-view. Then you can market yourself with commercials and things like that. But I think a lot of people in our community will buy that. They love seeing that and the exposure that our kids get from that. A lot of college coaches have access to that. One of the neat things about that is you have a coach who is in Texas or Tennessee or wherever, they plug right in with that laptop or iPhone and they can watch a kid. It’s pretty cool stuff. It’s fun to get an email Monday from a grandpa in Missouri saying, ‘Hey, thanks for letting me see my grandkid Friday night.’"
What about Forsyth County athletics in general? Where do you see its reputation at the moment?
"I’m excited. [All the county athletic directors] met the other day. I still think our best days are to come with the growth coming in. We’ve been through a lot since 2000. Well, let’s just go back to 1996 in going all the way from Class A to AA, back down and then all the way to the top. There’s never been a stability period. … Now we’re just now growing into our own pocket of a region. I feel Forsyth Central will be with us maybe the next [reclassification] cycle with the county growing. The more the county can stay together and we get to play games within the county, it’s only going to make rivalries better. The programs are going to get better. We’re almost like a small, mini-Gwinnett. We’re 15-20 years behind where they are now, and it’s slowly going to creep up and catch up. It’s an exciting time to be a part of Forsyth County athletics."
Is Gwinnett what Forsyth athletic programs compare itself to?
"That’s the measuring stick. They do some good things. The growth is very similar. The counties are very similar. A lot of the students are the same. Yeah, I guess there’s been measuring stick so to speak there, to be like Cobb or Gwinnett."
You’re very involved with the Georgia High School Association. What issues are on the GHSA’s radar?
"It’s been a transitional era. There are a lot of new things happening, and a lot of great things happening there. We’re working with our state legislature. This past year was a tough, trying year for the GHSA. I feel like we’ve tried to mend some things and fix some things to keep the state legislature happy. Set some new policies that they asked us to put into place. We got put on the governor’s oversight committee, so we’re putting in some compliance there. Some people have retired. Some people have come on board. There’s been a new board of trustees elected. These next two years are a really exciting and trying time for the GHSA as we try to move forward in a new era for ourselves. With [long-time executive director] Dr. [Ralph] Swearngin retiring, [Gary] Phillips is taking over. Jay Russell, who used to be at LaGrange, the son of Erk Russell, is now the assistant director. We’re looking forward to some exciting times, some new things. It’s a new era for GHSA."
One of the issues brought to the GHSA was on the rate of turnover for those in authority positions, right?
"A lot of things were being asked about term limits for sitting on the board of directors and things like that. We put new policies in place. That’ll be a work in progress this year. Tried to appease the state capitol and keep everybody happy in Atlanta."