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Craft, Hepler reshape respective football teams during spring
FC Spring 2 052216 web
Forsyth Central began a new era under first-year head coach Frank Hepler this spring coming off a 4-6 season in 2015. - photo by Tracy Stephens

Things have been moving faster at Coal Mountain.

The Raiders, coming off a 2-8 season and a 1-9 mark the year before, have picked up the tempo under first-year head coach Robert Craft. Craft, formerly an assistant at Colquitt County before winning a state championship at North Florida Christian, finally got to set foot on the same field with his new players during the spring practice season, which wrapped up Saturday with the team’s scrimmage.

North will trade in its double wing offense for a modern, more spread out system. Many upperclassmen are learning new positions, and they’re doing it faster than ever.

“With a new coaching staff, you really are a couple of months behind everyone else in the first season so there’s a sense of urgency. That’s important in everything we do,” Craft said.

The Raiders will have to replace production from Cody Dwyer at wingback, Jacob Bailey at quarterback and Jackson Bardall on the offensive and defensive line. Rising junior Ben Bales has contended for the starting job at quarterback, while running back Griffin Heffington, receiver Simon Holcomb and linebackers Shaun Herock and Griffin Hughes have spearheaded an energized culture on and off the field.

“There are no shortcuts to success and there is no easy way of doing things,” Craft said. “We have asked a lot out of our kids over the past four months. To our player’s credit they have responded incredibly well. They are hungry for success and are beginning to understand that comes with tons of hard work.”

Frank Hepler is in a similar situation at Forsyth Central, though he’s much more a familiar face. Formerly the head coach of West Forsyth during its upbringing, Hepler has returned to give the Bulldogs a facelift as they join the rest of the public county schools in the new Region 5-AAAAAAA.

Hepler believes the classification jump for Central, which previously played in a geographically scattered region in Class AAAAA, has helped pump enthusiasm into the offseason.

“The players are eager to play at the AAAAAAA level,” Hepler said. “They want to prove that they belong.”

Hepler relied on rising seniors Sabrian Howard, Jacob Ward, Sebastian Legarra, Hunter Stephens, Josh Weirauch and Quinton Peppers to help instill the message from a new coaching staff.

“We set goals as a staff and we shared them with the team. The biggest theme was to work hard each day to improve and make each other better as players, and as teammates,” Hepler said.

Lambert (8-3 in 2015)

Longhorns head coach Louis Daniel is happier about the health of his team than anything. Lambert, which dealt with a persistent injury bug last year, got through the spring session without any significant injuries.

“I think we’re actually healthier coming out of the spring than we were going in,” Daniel said.

Lambert was one win away from a region title last year. They’ll contend for that title again this year, especially in a smaller region, if the offensive line can gel. The Longhorns had to say goodbye to a senior-laden offensive line from a season ago—four will play at the next level, including dominant tackle Sean Bailey, who is headed for East Carolina.

Daniel has been impressed by the amount of growth his younger players have achieved through dedicated strength work in the offseason.

“Our eyes really turn to the guys who have made strides in the weight room,” Daniel said. “You pretty much know those are the ones who will be ready to contribute right away.”

South Forsyth (11-2 in 2015)

The War Eagles lost an abundance of talent from this year’s senior class—Jalen Camp to Georgia Tech, Cameron Kline to Harvard, Sam Outlaw to Kennesaw State, Ronnie Chambliss to Reinhardt, Curtis Roach to Western Carolina. The list goes on.

However, the Region 6-AAAAAA champions will bring back quarterback and FCN Player of the Year Davis Shanley, who has reeled in a hand full of scholarship offers already. Shanley expects to have time to find and get comfortable with his new receivers, especially considering the experience returning on the offensive line.

“With four out of five starters returning we felt like that would be our strength going into the spring,” South head coach Jeff Arnette said. “Despite losing so many the guys have had a really solid spring and are making big improvements. They are competing every day and making our football team better.”

South’s defense has already been working on replacing eight starters, but linebackers Julian Mingo and Max Slott have emerged as leaders during the spring.

West Forsyth (7-4 in 2015)

West will have the county’s most acclaimed player in highly-recruited defensive end Eli Huggins. Huggins and teammates on the defensive line got the best of a new offensive line during a team scrimmage on Thursday.

The Wolverines haven’t had issues with skill position players, though, especially considering head coach Adam Clack has mandated each player cross-train at two separate positions.

“It creates a much more competitive atmosphere, but also as coaches you get to learn a lot more about what you have and what you can do,” Clack said. “It creates depth for sure. We don’t want guys sitting on the bench behind kids when they’re better than the other. We want to find the best 30 to 35 guys, not just 22.”

Pinecrest Academy (10-2 in 2015)

The reigning Region 6-A champions have let the grass between the pines grow green this spring. Instead of having spring practice, the Paladins focused on strength and conditioning and spring sports while the varsity staff coached the middle school football team instead.

Pinecrest head coach Todd Winter thinks the unique setup has many benefits. The middle school team played a scrimmage game against Rabun County, a powerful Class AA program, to end the spring period. Pinecrest won 28-21.

“We get to kind of see what we have by coaching the middle school team in the spring,” Winter said. “You have young kids buying into our program. They run the same offense and defense as we do at the varsity level, so really it’s about building that consistency.”

Winter said what has stood out with the middle school team, which has a combined 44-12 record since it began, has been the character of the younger players.

“Honestly, typically the younger kids have to learn to be unselfish, and they do as they get older,” Winter said. “But, at Pinecrest we really don’t have that problem. The middle school kids are a great bunch of kids who all play for each other. We really instilled that at the varsity level, so what we’re seeing is that taking place throughout the program.”