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Football: After years of irrelevance, Otwell Middle School morphs into a contender
Otwell Middle School head coach Justin English observes practice on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. - photo by Ian Frazer

As time began to wind down during Otwell Middle School’s football matchup against Vickery Creek on Aug. 28, the Bulldogs had a slim lead and needed one final stop.

The Bulldogs could start to taste their first win against the Vipers in 15 years. During all those seasons, preventing a last second score to secure a victory just wasn’t something Otwell did. It wasn’t even a position Otwell was ever in.

“There wasn’t a thought that (we) were going to allow them to get in,” safety Daniel Smith said.

The Bulldogs were fully aware of what they had to do. When they tackled ball carriers, they kept them up for as long as possible and didn’t let them go to the ground to keep the clock running for a just a little bit longer. It was heads-up football that Otwell head coach Justin English was proud of, and it led to the team’s proudest win of the season.

“I wish I could take credit for it,” English laughed. “They knew what they were doing. That goes back to getting that good group of kids who've played before. A lot of years, we get kids who are in their first year playing. They're not in a whirlwind out there, which is nice.”

Experience is just one of the factors for the Bulldogs’ long-awaited resurgence, a 5-2 regular season and division championship that stands as an outlier in the program’s recent history. Otwell hopes that this year’s campaign isn’t just a blip in the overall story of the football program, but the beginning of a lasting turnaround that can feed Forsyth Central’s varsity squad talent for the foreseeable future.

Otwell athletic director Brian Bradley has been at the school for five years now, and the last four have been in his current post. During his time, like his predecessors, the football program had been in a rough place. He recalls the Bulldogs only scoring one touchdown for the whole year during his first season as AD. For the last two seasons, Otwell finished with one and two wins, respectively.

One of the biggest problems the program has faced is the challenge of keeping athletes in house. Players transferring to other county programs has been a problem in years past. The Bulldogs had to make staying more enticing, and that started with hiring more people that could build the team. Otwell has increased its staff from three coaches to six, with a good amount of them having some sort of high school experience. Otwell targeted coaches that wanted to take a step back from the demands of high school and others at the beginning of their careers.

“(It’s) just the fact that we have a full staff and are able to support our kids, and get those kids out that we haven't been able to get out, that are either not in our building or that are in our building and not coming out,” Bradley said. “We're getting more kids out than we ever have. That's really been the biggest thing.”

“A lot of coaches want to be at the high school level. You have to find the right fit.  We've got a good balance now.”

One of the coaches Otwell brought in was English, who is now in his third year as head coach. During his time in Florida, current Central coach Frank Hepler frequently faced off with English’s father in the state playoffs, and that connection helped English get on board. English said that Hepler’s presence at Central has helped Otwell, too.

“Him coming up and starting the West Forsyth program, his name kind of carried a lot of weight with a lot of people in the county,” English said. “A lot of parents feel good about their kids playing for him, and so we're kind of getting the benefit of that.”

Seniority has also been a huge factor. The Bulldogs are starting 13 eighth graders that played in seventh grade last year. Smith, an eighth grader, admitted that some peers quit the team or didn’t want to try out for fear of losing, but he’s thoroughly enjoyed being on the positive end of the scoreboard.

“It's been a different culture,” Smith said. “In the previous years, it's been more expecting to lose, but now it expecting to win. The team wants to win. We knew we had more talent this year than usual, so we were pretty excited about that.”

While Otwell has better and more experienced athletes than it has in previous years, English still doesn’t see his team as the biggest around. To him, it’s been toughness that has defined the Bulldogs. It’s a trait that English hopes his squad exhibits during next Tuesday’s county playoff game against Lakeside.

“They don't get intimidated by it,” he said. “They take pride in being the tougher team. That's something that we didn't have in the last couple of years. These guys want that fight.”