West Forsyth’s loss last week to North Gwinnett signaled the end of the Forsyth County high school football season. But it also signaled a beginning, of coaches fully taking stock of what happened over the past campaign and what they can do to make next year go better. We caught up with six county coaches to go over the good, the bad of the just-completed season.
Bulldogs overcome more than just history
Forsyth Central’s season had one main overarching narrative,
the one most easily visible to the public: After going 0-10 in in 2017, the
nadir for a program that had no shortage of tough campaigns in recent years,
the Bulldogs went 7-4 and made the state playoffs. It was a dramatic turnaround
filled with dramatic games, including the school’s first win over a county
opponent since 2007 and its first over South Forsyth since 2001.
But those also facts and figures come short of capturing the true improbability of the season.
“Some day, I may have to write a book about it,” Hepler said. “Because there was so much going on that people don’t know about.”
Hepler believes that he and the rest of the coaches did the most they could with this year’s group. And nothing else would have done, because these Bulldogs were not lucky, at all.
Before the season had even started, they were down their starting quarterback, Hunter Cagle, and one of their best defensive players, Mitch Weber, who both suffered season-ending injuries in the fall scrimmage against Meadowcreek. Early in the region schedule, they lost their backup quarterback, Ryan Van Uum, to another injury, and there were numerous personal trials that the team had to deal with as well, including the death of Cagle’s father, one of the team’s biggest supporters.
But the injuries also served as proof for many players of one of Hepler’s common pieces of advice: Even if you’re down on the depth chart, keep working, because you never know what could happen.
Players saw that in practice, and they also saw the greatest reward of all the work they kept at through the losing seasons: wins. Hepler hopes that feeling can inspire the program to push even harder in the future, and he’s also hoping that a county runner-up finish from Otwell Middle, one of Central’s feeder schools, gives inspiration to the younger ranks.
Hepler said the Bulldogs are going to continue with the option scheme their offense adopted this year, and he hopes it’s a more balanced between the run and pass in the future: Cagle’s absence made Central rely heavily on the ground game, and Hepler is looking for the program’s quarterbacks to improve their throwing skills.
And while he thinks the Bulldogs could have done more in some situations – namely their 7-3 loss to Denmark, in which Central missed multiple opportunities for more points – he also sees their other defeats, to West Forsyth, Milton and Archer, as acceptable ones.
Going from 0-10 to the playoffs is enough alone to make Central’s season look impressive. But that certainly isn’t the only reason.
“For what we were going through, as players and as a staff, it was quite an accomplishment,” Hepler said.
Danes surprise, but also pine for more
For Forsyth County’s newest high school, the expectations were a bit murky before the season began. Nobody knew how Denmark’s young, newly-minted football team would do, especially in a region with Class 4A titans Blessed Trinity and Marist.
While Denmark did not see any playoff action during its inaugural season, the Danes did more than enough to surprise many in the community, finishing at 5-5. Head coach Terry Crowder doesn’t quite see it that way, though.
“I do think we surpassed everybody's expectations, (but) we didn't meet our own expectations,” he said. “I think that's what's sticking with me kind of hard. I’m disappointed we didn't make the playoffs. I felt like we were one of the four best teams in our region and we didn't get that done. (It's) mixed emotions, but mostly happy.”
The Danes certainly had some upperclassmen in key positions — they had the county’s top receiver in Ze’Vian Capers (1,182 yards, 11 TD), along with quarterback Ben Whitlock, who ended his junior year as one of the most productive passers in Class 4A with 2,713 yards through the air.
But from the beginning of the year, Crowder knew that if his team was going to be successful, it wouldn’t be on guys like Capers that played both ways — it would be on everyone else.
“It was going to come down to those sophomores and how they could play and if they could stand up to varsity,” Crowder said. “I thought they did a great job with that.”
Beating a Forsyth Central team that eventually made the playoffs and pulling out a dramatic region win over White County were two of the pinnacle moments of the year. Still, the season did not come without regrets, the biggest one being how Denmark handled its second region game against West Hall — the only county contest during fall break.
“From my time at other places, I know that playing on fall break is really tough, and that was such an important game,” Crowder said. “In the end, that's the game that cost us a playoff berth. We've got to do it next year too, so I've got to look at how we can try to play better that day.”
With basically every starter coming back, Crowder is excited about the future. Now the coach of a team set to be one of the biggest in Class 4A, his decision to leave a now 12-0 Creekview team still doesn’t seem a like a bad one to him in retrospect.
“I made the right decision,” he said. “This is the place for me, and in the next few years, we're going to be really, really good.”
Wolverines find method in madness
Standing at 1-5 overall on Oct. 5 after a blowout 41-0 loss
to eventual Region 5-7A champion Milton, West Forsyth’s outlook seemed pretty
bleak at that point.
But as the rest of the region found out, there was a method to the Wolverines’ madness of playing top-tier opponents in Camden County, Hewitt-Trussville (Ala.), Roswell and McCallie (Tenn.) to start the year. West lost all of those games, but they weren’t lopsided defeats. That gave the Wolverines the confidence they needed to win out for the rest of the regular season and go farther than any other Forsyth County team in the playoffs, losing to defending 7A champ North Gwinnett in the second round.
“We never had a gimme game in there where we could take a week off and still come out with a win,” West head coach Shawn Cahill said. “They had to play hard every single week. I think the kids represented our school and the county very well when we played out of state teams.
“I'm proud of the season. We would have liked to have gotten a few more wins in there, but that will eventually come if we keep playing teams like this.”
In Cahill and the rest of the coaching staff’s second year together, they all had a better idea of the kind of players they had and how to utilize them. Because of that, Cahill had a better time letting his coordinators do their thing this year, so much so that he dumped his headset.
“When I was a coordinator, I trusted that everybody on the offensive side was doing their job and were all on the same page,” he said. “As a head coach it's a little different because you've got your hand in everything. It is one of the things I had to learn: These guys know what they're doing.”
The Wolverines feel like they did a good job in maximizing the talent of players like Stephon Bland, who started the year as a primary running back but shifted to more of a defensive role. West wasn’t afraid to move players around if it helped the team, a mentality that led to Abe Camara being one of the county’s top pass catchers down the stretch.
The goal was to get players like Camara and Bland ready to play both ways when region play started, but West can’t help but wonder if it would have been better to speed that process up. After a couple of key injuries this year, depth will also be an issue that the Wolverines will be looking to rectify next year.
“When I sit down and think about it, there's probably a lot more that I think I can try to fix than I look at and say, ‘We did well,’” Cahill said.
War Eagles push through ample adversity
South Forsyth extended its postseason streak to five seasons
this year, but it didn’t exactly come in the way the War Eagles had envisioned.
Throughout the year, South dealt with key injury after key injury. Senior Jack Pehrson suffered a season-ending injury in week one. Running back Jordan Brunson was on the shelf for a few weeks himself, and receiver Colby Cruz broke his collarbone down the stretch, and that’s just to name a few.
“It was tough in that aspect, but I was super proud of the way the seniors dealt with all the adversity we had this year,” South head coach Jeff Arnette said. “They came back to work every week no matter what happened and just practiced as hard as they possibly could. Their attitude was incredible through it all.”
That attitude shined brightest in two games late in the year — a win against North Forsyth that saw South overcome a 20-point deficit, and a loss to Grayson in the first round of the playoffs, when South trailed a loaded Rams team 7-6 at halftime before finally faltering late.
“We really played good football in the first half even though we scored one time,” Arnette said. “Of course, you're playing a team with seven DI commits on defense. I feel like our kids didn't go in intimidated. They went in there believing they could win and were going to do what they did every game, and that's play as hard as they could. I was proud of them at halftime, and things just didn't bounce our way in that second half. The score didn't indicate how close the game really was.”
Pass rush was a big part of South’s strategy this season, leading the county by a wide margin in sacks and quarterback hurries. Georgia Tech commit Jamal Camp was a critical part of that, with a team-leading seven sacks.
“Jamal was unbelievable this year,” Arnette said. “Once we got into region play he started playing both ways and heck, by the end of the year, he was playing a whole lot on offense. I think he showed what kind of player he really is. We're going to miss him dearly.”
The good news for South is its playoff run has the potential to continue — The War Eagles had a good amount of new starters on both sides of the ball this year, and Arnette is excited to see what they can do next year with a year of experience under their belts.
Raiders left looking for a break
From the very first game, North Forsyth’s 2018 season
appeared to be a snakebitten one.
In the first quarter of the Raiders’ season opener against Cherokee, senior running back Bryson Trigg, set to be an integral part of the offense, broke his collarbone. It was an injury feared to be season-ending.
Thankfully for North, it wasn’t, but it was far from the only heartbreaking moment this season, with the Raiders going 1-4 in contests decided by four points or less. Late in an overtime game against Kennesaw Mountain and against Forsyth Central, the Raiders could not convert necessary special teams plays to stay alive or stay ahead.
“It just seemed like, at the time, that we needed to make plays to get off the field or make a play offensively,” North head coach Robert Craft said. “We were just short on those several times over, especially in the kicking game.
“In some ways, you felt, ‘When’s the ball going to bounce our way?’ But you’ve got to make the ball do that and you’ve got to make the plays.”
There was one instance where those plays came, though, in the Raiders’ second game against Gainesville, when quarterback Carter Mullikin led a game-winning fourth quarter drive for a 24-21 win.
The experienced offensive line, led by Ole Miss commit Jeremy James, fueled a very effective running game. The line opened plenty of holes for Honus Wagner and Trigg when he became healthy, with each of them running for 888 and 694 yards, respectively. Quarterback Carter Mullikin took advantage of the line as well, rushing for 694 yards of his own.
Being competitive against other county teams was also a big plus for the Raiders, especially after losing two of those games by double digits last year. For next season, North will return 12 players that started games on defense, a unit that will be integral to continuing the progress that the Raiders want to continue going forward.
“It was a year where we didn’t meet some of the goals that we set out, but our staff still feels very strongly that (from) where our program was three years ago, the steps forward we took with the competitiveness of our games with other county teams – we’re really happy with where all that’s going,” Craft said.
Longhorns rue the ones that slipped away
Lambert certainly isn’t satisfied with the 3-7 mark it recorded this year, but Longhorns head coach Louis Daniel doesn’t peg his success solely on win-loss record. He can’t.
“If you’re going to measure success in wins and losses, this can be a lonely, disappointing profession,” Daniel said.
In other markers, Daniel feels good about the Longhorns’ campaign. He believes that he and his staff got the most out of its current group of players and that the effort and competitiveness was almost always there. He also feels that the Longhorns’ record could have been significantly better: Five of there seven losses came by two scores or less, and the season-ending overtime defeat to Forsyth Central was set up by a missed Lambert field goal as time expired in regulation.
“If you flip a turnover here or there, make a stop here or there, we’re in every one of those games,” Daniel said.
Lambert scored the fewest points and gave up the most in Region 5-7A, but it was turnovers, Daniel said, that were the Longhorns’ biggest downfall. Lambert was in the negative on the year in that category, and the Longhorns simply didn’t have the talent to make up for that.
That’s not to say that Lambert didn’t have some exciting talents emerge. The team did well with multi-sport talents, like receiver John Thompson (baseball), tight end/linebacker Patrick Deans (lacrosse) and fullback/linebacker Jack McClure (lacrosse), and defensive end Gallil Guillaume, who had been almost exclusively a pass-rusher in the past for the Longhorns, rounded out his skillset and became out of the most dangerous defensive players in the county.
The Longhorns opened the season at 3-2, with strong wins over Chattahoochee and Peachtree Ridge and a 16-15 win over Gainesville that saw Lambert rise from the dead. And while the six straight losses that followed those weren’t ideal, the Longhorns can take solace in that, most of the time, they had their chances.
“We had a lot of opportunities throughout the season,” Daniel said. “And we couldn’t quite get over that hump.”