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First things first: Region championship to feature pair of first-year coaches
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West Forsyth head coach Dave Svehla has led the Wolverines to a 6-3 record and four straight wins. - photo by David Roberts

Mike Palmieri and Dave Svehla were hired to fulfill long-term goals, but the two first-year head coaches now find themselves on the brink of a Region 6-7A championship.

Entering its third year in existence, which coincided with an ambitious jump from Class 4A to Class 7A, Denmark athletic director Jamie Corr didn't discuss many immediate goals when trying to fill the Danes' head coaching vacancy. 

His eyes were fixed further down the road.

"We brought Mike in for the long haul," Corr said. "Moving up to 7A and jumping up three classifications, we really didn't have a lot of expectations going into the season."

Yet, Denmark has been the best team in the region this season as far as wins and losses are concerned. 

The Danes haven't lost since September and are a perfect 5-0 in a region populated by teams with more than double Denmark's roster size. Blue chip wide receiver Ze'Vian Capers graduated, left tackle Dayne Shor transferred to IMG Academy, running back Marcus McFarlane is currently North Gwinnett's leading rusher and Troy commit Justin Bradford decided to sit out his senior season.

On top of that, just like every other high school football team in the country, the Danes missed out on spring practice and spent much of the summer installing the playbook virtually.

"With all the challenges that we've faced this fall, it's been very beneficial to have someone with the experience of Coach Palmieri to come in and implement all of our new policies and procedures," Corr said.

Palmieri, a longtime coach at North Carolina power Mallard Creek, brought plenty of experience. 

So did Svehla.

In fact, in addition to Svehla's more than two decades of head coaching experience, West already had several assistant coaches who had held that position. 

Bill Ballard coached 15 seasons across three different schools, Jason Galt brought 10 seasons of head coaching experience, including three at North Forsyth, Chad Davenport led Northview for seven seasons, and Jacob Nichols spent six years at Alpharetta.

Not to mention all of the years spent as assistant coaches. 

"When you add it all up, it's probably over 100 years of coaching experience on our staff," West Forsyth athletic director Brett Phipps said. "That helps. I mean, it always helps."

Svehla has led West to a 6-3 record and four straight wins.

"It's our first year with him, but he's 22 years as a head football coach, so it's not his first rodeo," Phipps said. "He's what we thought we were getting when we hired him. He's been outstanding — just super proud. I know how hard they've worked."

Of course, West overcame its share of obstacles to reach the region championship game.

The Wolverines opened the season with a 42-6 shellacking of Mays in the Corky Kell Classic, a historic win considering West was the first Forsyth County team to host a game in the annual preseason showcase. But they did it without UGA commit Dylan Fairchild, who tweaked his knee and watched from the sidelines.

The next week, West traveled to Cartersville without standout tight end Oscar Delp, who is averaging 83 yards and a score this season. The Wolverines fell 28-17 in a game that they believe might have gone in a different direction with a full lineup. 

Then, after the bye week, sophomore QB Keegan Stover hurt his shoulder while scrambling for a first down against Walton. West rallied to win the game 24-21 behind a gutsy performance by backup quarterback Ashton Van Horn, but dropped the next two games against Mill Creek and North Forsyth. 

"Everybody felt like it was kind of us against — not the world — but us against everything," Phipps said. "It just felt like everything was working against us for the longest time. Dave's a positive guy and kept fighting through it (and) the kids responded and saw that."

Stover returned following the North loss, sparking the Wolverines past South Forsyth in double overtime behind a pair of herculean offensive performances by Delp (9 catches, 172 yards, 2 TDs) and Daba Fofana (23 carries, 147 yards, 3 TDs). 

"When we had the transitioning coaches in the middle of the winter, we had a lot of seniors last year, and I think a lot of people from the outside probably thought, 'Well, it's probably going to take them a year or two to get up to speed,'" Phipps said. "But I knew if we brought in the right people and the right guys, we had a possibility to be pretty good."

Phipps traces that success back to the coaches who were already on staff before this season. The ones who took it upon themselves to make sure West's players were in the weight room and taking part in conditioning while the coaching search was pending.

"What we had here was a bunch of guys who were committed to West Forsyth football that were still here after Cahill left," Phipps said. "We went almost two months before we were able to hire a coach, just because of the situation and the process. Those guys — Rob Tjong, Bill Ballard, Chad Davenport, Jason Galt, Jason Bayush — all those guys say, 'All right, we're going to let those guys up there in the main office take care of hiring our next guy. We're going to go back to work.'"

For Corr, experience wasn't the issue when it came down to hiring a new coach. It seemed that everyone who applied for the Denmark job had sterling credentials, fully equipped with state championship experience and plenty of reasons to say 'yes.'

But Corr wasn't looking for just any sort of experience — he wanted a specific type of experience. Someone who had started a program from the ground up, and been successful while doing it.

"Well, it's about finding the exact right fit for your school and your population,"' Corr said. "Although you have tons of applicants with incredible resumés, it kind of becomes clearer when you see who has dealt with our exact type situation as far as, number one, being a newer school opening up and, number two, someone that's dealt with jumping up classifications."

Palmieri won three state championships in North Carolina, was twice named the North Carolina Associated Press Coach of the Year (2014, 2015), and won 139 games.

Moreover, the school where Palmieri coached opened in 2007, meaning he was averaging 10 wins a season and a state championship roughly every four years.

Palmieri was the applicant Corr was trying to find.

Phipps knew the next coach he hired would be West's third in five seasons and fourth in eight seasons. 

Making the right hire was about finding the coach who was looking to lay down roots in Forsyth County. Luckily, Svehla already had roots here.

"The hardest part for me — unfortunately, I've had to do it more than I ever thought I would have to over the last 10 years — is getting somebody who's committed to staying here and building this," Phipps said. "We know how good our community is and we know how strong our feeders with Vickery and Liberty and now Hendricks next year. We know we've got the athletes and we know we've got a football community with the Midway Park community, but you've got to have somebody who's willing to stay here and build it. Three, four years isn't enough.

"I really do feel that with Dave we've found somebody who's committed to staying here for I think the rest of his career, if he wants to. He's certainly started off on a good foot."

No matter who wins Friday night, a first-year coach will have delivered a region championship in the middle of a pandemic despite a multitude of hurdles. It's the type of accomplishment you can stick on your resumé, though Corr and Phipps are hoping those resumés have long been burned.