Crystal Fowler's introduction to soccer came long before girls soccer evolved into one of Georgia's most popular sports.
Before the U.S. women's national soccer team captured its first gold medal, before back-to-back FIFA Women's World Cup victories, Fowler was outgunning the boys as a member of the Forsyth Rowdies.
"When I started out, I was one of the few girls in the county that was playing right alongside the boys. I had a great time, and they didn't treat me any differently because I was faster than all of them. I was blessed with that," said Fowler, who later won state championships in the 100m and 4x400m at Greater Atlanta Christian. "It's amazing to see — it was so much as far as the '96 Olympics with that first soccer gold the USA women got, and Mia Hamm and all that she did, so just the progression of the sport has been phenomenal."
Now, with soccer interest at a fever pitch and two of the past four Class 7A girls soccer champions hailing from Forsyth County, Fowler will look to navigate North Forsyth's girls soccer program through an increasingly competitive region.
"It's kind of like coming home," Fowler said. "It's great to be home. I've always wanted to be a coach, so it's awesome just to hopefully coach some of the kids of the friends I grew up playing with. I'm excited about it. I've always been around this area, so I just want to give back to the community and do what I can."
Fowler spent the past two years as an assistant soccer coach at North, helping the Raiders to a 9-8-1 record this season.
Prior to North, Fowler compiled a 48-7 record at Buford from 2013-15 and reached the Class 3A Final Four in 2013. Fowler's first year on Buford's staff came as an assistant in 2009, when the Wolves went 5-10 and missed the playoffs.
Since then, Buford has been a perennial playoff contender.
"When I started at Buford as an assistant, we only won five games our first year. So it was a whole rebuilding process and growing process," Fowler said. "Coming over to North, I saw some of that similar stuff, with wanting to improve things and that sort of stuff. I was just so appreciative of Jared [Steinberg] staying on and really leading us this year. He's the main voice we had this year as far as our improvement."
Also under Fowler, Buford's girls track and field program won three straight state championships from 2017-19 and was named Atlanta Track Club's All-Metro Team of the Year in 2018.
Fowler is one of two recent hires at North, joining boys lacrosse coach Stephen O'Hara.
O'Hara coached the past five seasons at Northview and led the Titans to three straight playoff appearances from 2017-19.
North's boys lacrosse team finished 6-11 overall and 2-5 in Area 5 Class 6A-7A this year.
"It starts with hard work," O'Hara said. "It starts with dedication and having a common goal — bringing a whole bunch of people together and sharing a common goal. A big part of my philosophy is turning a team into a family. I went to Lenoir-Rhyne University and we had a real family-based program there. The guys I've stayed close with over the years are my teammates and coaches that went through that program. I try to emulate those values in being part of something bigger than yourself and part of a family, and sharing a common goal, and putting effort, energy and emotion into the program."
O'Hara helped launch a Lenoir-Rhyne men's lacrosse program that reached the Division II national championship last month, just 11 seasons after its inception.
O'Hara was a two-time first-team Deep South Conference selection in 2014-15 and still ranks second in program history with 51 caused turnovers.
Northview faced Denmark and South Forsyth this season and played Lambert on a near yearly basis during O'Hara's tenure.
"I'm relatively familiar with it," O'Hara said of the boys lacrosse landscape in Forsyth County. "I have played a few of those teams in the area. I've been coaching at Northview for five years, so I understand that it is a very competitive area and a very competitive region to be in, but that's exactly the type of environment we want to be in. If we want to be the best, we want to beat the best."