As Forsyth County continues to grow in population and influence, so too does its prowess in high school sports. County schools were competing for and winning state titles up until the very last week they could do so this spring, and the addition of Denmark provided even more fascinating storylines and matchups.
Was this year the best ever for the county? With at least seven team state titles and many more runner-up finishes and individual titles, you could make that case. And there was plentiful drama and thrills to be found along the way.
Our semi-scientific rankings of the school year’s best games is based largely on two factors: Stakes, as in what was riding on the outcome, with a non-region game on one end and state championship on the other; and drama, as in the quantity of twists, turns and the like that it took to arrive at that final outcome. Here are No.s 6 through 10, with the rest to come next week.
10. North softball tops South in wild region tournament opener
In the first game of the Region 5-7A softball championship series between North Forsyth and South Forsyth on Oct. 1, things went quickly, horribly wrong for the Raiders.
Well, sort of. North had let two runs in after South's Isabel Hui doubled, and after a subsequent groundout, the War Eagles had two outs and just one runner on. But seven batters later, South had poured on seven more runs, and the War Eagles had a 9-0 lead with their ace, Lauren Baccari, on the mound.
There isn't a better inning to be down 9-0, though, and North certainly didn't give up hope. Raiders started Hailey Mize settled down impressively after that, giving up just two more runs in an eight-inning performance. And the Raiders, the best offensive team in the region, got to work at the plate: three runs in the second; two more in the third, on a home run from Miss; and even though South got their 10th in the top of the frame, four more in the bottom of the fourth, capped by an RBI double from Mize to tie things at 10-10.
There was still more drama to come. South made it 11-10 in the sixth, but Katie Jordan hit a solo shot to lead off the bottom of the seventh, sending the game to extras. Mize stranded two runners in the top of the eighth, and then she walked the War Eagles off in the bottom of the inning with a single to center.
North beat South the next night in a much calmer 5-3 win to take the region title, the culmination of a season made particularly memorable by North's resilience.
9. Central’s Gizelbach wins state title in race for the ages
Forsyth Central senior Calan Gizelbach had not set a personal best in the 3200 meters in his senior season heading into the state meet, with a 9:31.86 mark from a meet in November 2018 standing as his standard.
No better time than the state championship race to set a new one, right? The conditions on the night of May 9 in Rome were absolutely perfect to do so: cool, slightly damp, minimal wind. And it became quickly apparent that Gizelbach wasn't going to be the only one gunning for his best, as the race went out at a very crisp pace, with the leaders going through the first 400 meters in roughly 67 seconds.
Gizelbach wasn't an overwhelming favorite here, and for most of the race, he stayed a bit back from the front, though still in the lead pack. Through 1600 meters, he was in fourth, coming through in around 4:37.
The was well on pace for a PR, but Gizelbach decided to go even bigger. He stuck in his spot through the next 1200 meters, entering the last lap in fourth, but started making a move on the front turn, moving into third behind Marietta's Kamari Miller and Peachtree Ridge's Chase Condra.
On the back turn, it became clear that Gizelbach had more in his kick than either of those runners, and he zipped by Miller on the outside to move into the lead on the back stretch. He held that advantage comfortably, winning by a good five meters.
Gizelbach's time was 9:13.89, a personal best by more than 17 seconds. His performance both in its timeliness and magnitude of improvement, surely puts it among the greatest races ever run by a county track athlete.
8. Central clinches playoff berth with heart-stopping win over South
The Forsyth Central football team's 2018 season had already been a success, at least in comparison to past years. The Bulldogs had won a game, an improvement over a winless 2017, and they had won a region game, their first-ever as a member of Class 7A. And they had the state playoffs in their sights with two region games to play.
But the game against South Forsyth on Oct. 26 didn't seem like the most likely candidate for a clincher, at least compared to the one against Lambert the following week. The War Eagles had run over Lambert, hung tough against Milton – the eventual state champion – and staged a dramatic comeback win against North Forsyth.
It wasn't the most charmed beginning for Central, with the Bulldogs turning the ball over on downs in South territory on an early offensive possession, but Central quickly answered that disappointment with a pick-six from Tristen Rose to put the first score on the board.
Central came up big when absolutely necessary, though, forcing a turnover on downs at its own 11 to end a long War Eagles drive. They had to punt soon after, but perhaps the biggest Bulldogs play of the season followed, with Jake Bretz snagging an interception on a jump ball. Central then got a first down and ran the clock out.The Bulldogs proceeded to dominate the first half on the scoreboard, leading 23-0 at the break. But the yardage totals indicated a more subtle advantage for Central, and the lead shrunk to 26-21 entering the fourth quarter.
The significance the win for the long-downtrodden program was clear in the postgame huddle on the field, as parents and fans joined players to celebrate one of the most impressive turnarounds the county had ever seen.
7. West volleyball pulls off unlikely semifinal run with upset of Lassiter
The West Forsyth volleyball team had shown flashes of promise during the regular season, but were still largely inconsistent and entered the state playoffs as the No. 4 seed out of Area 5-7A. With that low seeding, the Wolverines’ chances of making a deep run didn’t seem great.
But the above-average difficulty of area play soon showed itself to be a benefit: West beat higher-seeded Grayson and Brookwood teams in the first two rounds, and then found itself in the quarterfinals against Class 7A heavyweight Lassiter, a team that had lost just five times to that point. The Wolverines’ carefree and loose attitude had driven them throughout their playoff run, and underneath the low ceiling of Lassiter’s dimly-lit gym, that mentality didn’t waver.
The Wolverines got off to a rough start, falling 15-25 in the first set. That was the most lopsided loss West took over the entire match, with the Wolverines answering almost every Lassiter run from that point on. Aided by the Trojans’ mistakes, solid defense and the play of senior Annie Veldhuis, West tied the second set 22-22, and eventually took a 26-24 win after tying it again at 24.
West continued to match their favored opponents well. After earning another close set win at 25-23 to go up 2-1, Lassiter set up a decisive fifth set. West tied that set twice, and after two straight kills to win the match, the Wolverines stormed the court in celebration of their first-ever semifinal appearance as the stunned Trojans looked on.
6. North’s Watkins gets state wrestling title by razor-thin margin
It was a banner day for Forsyth County athletes at the state traditional wrestling meet on Feb. 16 in Macon, with North Forsyth’s Sophia Eglian becoming the first female wrestling state champion in county history and Pinecrest’s Mark Metz earning his school’s first-ever GHSA title.
North’s Paul Watkins was no stranger to being at the state championships, but each of his first three trips ended in disappointment, finishing just short in his sophomore and junior years. As a senior, the 2019 meet was his last chance at a title, and he didn’t waste it.
Watkins’ finals matchup with North Gwinnett’s Rex McDaniel at 145 pounds was a very even one. The first period was scoreless, with neither wrestler able to get an early edge, but in the second, a stalling call put Watkins in a less than desirable position, drawing the ire of North’s coaching staff sitting at the edge of the mat.
The North senior made the most of the situation, though, escaping McDaniel’s grasp to earn the bout’s first and only point. And after clinging to his slim lead throughout the third period, Watkins yelled out in jubilation after time ran out in celebration of a long-awaited state championship victory.