The week of their first foray into the postseason since 2013, North Forsyth’s football team stood at attention. Raiders head coach Robert Craft asked for a show of hands from players who had been in a playoff game before.
Not a single hand went up.
North’s season ended after that first-round matchup last season against eventual Class 7A state champion North Gwinnett, but the Raiders hope making the playoffs is just a single step to greater things in year three under Craft’s leadership, with plenty of key starters returning.
While making the playoffs was certainly an accomplishment, North was reeling a little bit before it got there. The Raiders began the 2017 season well, standing at 5-2 after opening their region schedule with wins over Forsyth Central and Lambert. Those victories ended up being North’s last, as the Raiders fell to South Forsyth, West Forsyth and Milton before its first round playoff loss to end the season at 5-6 overall.
“I don’t think it’s a negative thing at all,” Craft said. “I think it speaks to the competition in our league.”
Catching up to the titans of Region 5-7A doesn’t just apply to what happens on the field. To North, that starts in the weight room, improving on an aspect of the team that has been lacking in recent years.
“I think the biggest thing is going to be our strength,” Craft said. “We feel like we’ve been really playing catch-up to a lot of folks in our league in that regard. That doesn’t happen overnight — that’s something where it really takes consistent work in the weight room day in and day out.”
To get back to the playoffs, the Raiders will be relying largely on their offense, an air raid attack that scored the third-most points in school history last year. Leading that unit was prolific quarterback Ben Bales, who has now moved on. Set to replace him under center is senior Carter Mullikin, who has experience playing quarterback but moved over from playing safety last season.
“It’s big shoes to fill, but I’m not really worried,” Mullikin said. “I’m not going to pressure myself to live up to (Ben) because I know we’ve got returners all over the field. We’re going to spread it out, I’m going to get the ball to as many people as I can and let them do the work.”
Mullikin will have quite the assortment of weapons to choose from. Three-year starters Charlie Aiken (40 catches, 721 yards, 5 TD) and Nicky Dalmolin (51 catches, 585 yards, 4 TD) will return out wide.
“We’re excited to see some of the new guys,” Craft said. “Surely, Nicky and Charlie are going to take a lot of the attention (and) deservedly so. They’ve done a great job for us — we feel like they’re very good threats out wide on the perimeter, but we’re excited to see some of the new guys that will step up.”
Senior Bryson Trigg will return as the team’s primary running back after rushing for 928 yards and 12 touchdowns on 185 carries during his junior campaign. His and Mullikin’s performances could be bolstered by a big and experienced offensive line, led by senior Ole Miss commit Jeremy James.
On the defensive side, North will only have two returning starters, contrasting with the offense’s seven returners. Senior Honus Wagner (78 tackles, 61 solo, 6 TFL, 4 INT) will be a key player manning the secondary, as will senior Jon Fleming at cornerback.
With all the work he’s seen during the offseason and all the big names he still has on his roster, Craft has a good feeling about the 2018 team. The Raiders now have playoff experience under their belt; the next logical step for North would be hosting a home playoff game, or perhaps something even greater.
“This year will be different — we hope to be back again with that opportunity in November, to have a chance to play,” Craft said. “We have a lot of work to do before we get there, but it’ll be different.”