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Football: FCN staff debate players of the year, breakout players and more
FCN REVIEW 093016 web
FCN's sports staff of Michael Foster (left) and Brian Paglia prepped for their debate on some of the biggest storylines of the first half of the high school football season. - photo by Staff illustration


Paglia: I’m going to make the case for West Forsyth quarterback Kiernen Hamilton, and it has as much to do with his performance as it does with who he’s had to perform against. Hamilton has again been a dependable signal caller for the Wolverines. He leads the county in completion percentage (61.2) and passing yards (1,140), and he’s done it against a difficult non-region schedule that MaxPreps rated the second-toughest among Forsyth County teams, right behind South Forsyth. Yes, he has fewer passing yards (1,292) and touchdowns (16) than he had at this point last season, but, again, the competition has been far tougher. And yet Hamilton has the Wolverines going into their Region 5-7A schedule a county-best 4-1 and on a three-game winning streak.

Foster: It’s easy to start at the quarterbacks here. After all, our reigning OPOY still starts at quarterback for South Forsyth and nearly led a magical comeback last week in a battled of top-10 foes; West Forsyth’s Kiernan Hamilton is in the same groove as last year; North Forsyth has a stud on the rise in junior Ben Bales, who only needs to drop his interception rate ever so slightly. In my gut, right now this award is coming from a tailback instead. Forsyth Central’s Sabrian Howard deserves a ton of credit for the Bulldogs’ 3-1 start to the season – he is, after all, the focal point of the offense. Central has run 188 times, with Howard owning over half the carries (99). He’s averaging 177 yards per game, 7.2 yards per carry and has scored 11 touchdowns. Howard has endured much more of a physical load than any quarterback outside of Pinecrest Academy’s Ryan McCarthy. A senior who has dealt with losing seasons going back to middle school, Howard more than deserves the praise. It’ll be fun to watch how he stacks up against region competition starting next week.


Paglia: I like Forsyth Central senior outside linebacker Hunter Stephens, who has 31 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four sacks and a blocked extra point in just four games. That’s right, remember: the Bulldogs’ first game against Dawson County was called just before halftime, so Stephens has a game less of production than his Region 5-7A counterparts. And yet he still leads the county in both tackles for loss (11) and sacks (four) despite playing one game fewer. Against Duluth, when he had seven tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks, one observer on the opponents’ sideline said afterward it was the best individual defensive performance he’d ever seen. Stephens will get plenty of competition the rest of the season from the likes of South Forsyth’s Max Slott, West Forsyth’s Joey Congrove and Grant Torgerson, Lambert’s Jaryd Jean-Felix and Mac Redmond and others.

Foster: He’s only played three games so far, but there might not be a more impactful defensive player in the county right now than West Forsyth outside linebacker Grant Torgerson—for sure, nobody plays as hard. Torgerson missed the first two games of the year with a case of mono, which left him bedridden for days. He bounced back in a huge way against Hillgrove, recording 10 tackles (two for a loss), a sack, forcing a fumble, recovering a fumble and breaking up a pass in a 56-35 win over the Hawks. He had another big game on defense the next week against Dacula with nine tackles, one for a loss, an interception, a sack, and again a forced fumble. So, the sample size is smaller than many other defensive players who have played well so far—but the logic is this: if Torgerson can have three more of these types of games on defense against county competition, it’s going to be hard to leave him off the list. The one thing that could break this whole thing up is his offensive production. He’s had a great few games on offense as well with two multiple-touchdown performances, so there’s potential for his role shifting around. We’ll see.


Paglia: I’ve been down this road before with my midseason accolades – a first-year North Forsyth head coach who makes a great first impression. I like the work Robert Craft has done with the Raiders through his first five games in charge in Coal Mountain. North’s blowout loss to Woodstock last week notwithstanding, the Raiders have made an incredibly smooth transition to Craft’s up-tempo spread offense. First-year starting quarterback Ben Bales (1,090 yards, 9TDs) has been impressive, senior wide receiver Simon Holcomb has been electric (32 receptions, 520 yards, 5TDs) and the defense has some difference makers in Griffin Hughes, Robert Bishop and others.

Foster: So far, so good for the Frank Hepler era at Forsyth Central. The Bulldogs had their first 3-0 start since 1997—the best season for the program in the modern era—and jut may have been 4-0 to start if the game against Dawson County, which led 14-9, didn’t get called a no-contest late in the second quarter due to significantly severe weather in the area. The Bulldogs’ performances have come thanks to a well-thought out mix of schematics and new-found practice routines. The offense, which runs through Sabrian Howard, hasn’t looked nearly as different as some thought it would considering how much Hepler oversaw a passing attack at West Forsyth when he started that program. Instead, he’s simply enhanced and redefined the players already in place with structure and intensity in practices. The Bulldogs lost their first game Friday 32-17 in a game that Hepler called his fault. That’s a testament to being a player’s coach. Sure, it’s been a process so far, but the Bulldogs are performing well above the line of expectation so far. The first region game against North Forsyth, another team on the rise, will provide more clarity on just how far this team has come, but Hepler gets an A grade for what he’s done to this point.


Paglia: Where to go here? Tyler Gillis? Justin Bruno? Ben Bales? Ryan Pontrelli?  I’ll go with Ben Bales. North isn’t anywhere near the team it has been through the first half without the junior quarterback’s ascendance. Bales is completing 55.1 percent of his passes for 1,090 yards with nine touchdowns. And he’s been cool under pressure. Example: his game-winning touchdown pass against Pickens County with 16.7 seconds left. North first-year head coach Robert Craft came in hoping to transform the Raiders’ offense into an up-tempo, spread system, but it wouldn’t have worked without play from the quarterback position like North has received from Bales. Now, he’s been a little turnover prone (six interceptions in five games), but Craft and the Raiders have to be ecstatic with Bales’ performance so far.

Foster: This Justin Bruno kid at Lambert. Yeah. Where did he come from? It’s no surprise that Lambert has mixed up the running back rotation again this season—it’s been a game of musical chairs in the backfield, seemingly, going back to last season. Entering the year the FCN was trying to figure out if Marcus Chatelain, Ken Dicks, Brian Wright, Harrison Pomfret, Dylan Shepherd or a healthy Kohlins brother would carry the load. Yes – that’s seven guys in the running back depth that were tabbed as possible contributors before the season. Bruno was not on our list. Now he may be Lambert’s secret weapon moving forward. In two games he’s made his mark, starting with a 127-yard rushing performance that included a long touchdown scamper at Lanier. He also caught the game’s first touchdown in that contest, a 65-yarder. Then against Wheeler last Friday he rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries. Bruno is still a raw running back—a talented kid with great size and straight line speed who is still learning the position. Coaches have been vocal about it. The more he learns, the more dangerous he’ll become.


Paglia: I’ve laid eyes on every Forsyth County team in Region 5-7A – except Milton. So perhaps I’m most curious to see how Forsyth teams match-up against the Eagles.

If you believe MaxPreps’ team ratings, the Eagles are the third best in the region, behind South and West and ahead of North, Lambert and Central, in that order. That means if the regular season ended today, Milton would knock two Forsyth teams out of the playoffs. 

The Eagles are the lone school out of Forsyth in the region, and they created an ambitious non-region schedule to prepare for facing the Forsyth Five, which concludes tonight against No. 1-ranked Roswell, the Eagles’ historic rival. Milton goes into tonight’s game 2-2, with close wins against Alpharetta (14-12) and Cambridge (28-21) and one-sided losses against Etowah (28-10) and North Gwinnett (43-29).

Foster: Lambert was in the bottom of the standings in Forsyth County last week with a 1-3 mark while everyone else had a winning record. There may have been some talk about “what’s wrong with Lambert,” but honestly—it doesn’t appear to be much. Heading into region play the Longhorns are just a game off of South (3-2), who they face next week in the region opener, and North Forsyth (3-2).

The truth is, nobody has a clue who’s going to win this region right now. Lambert is just as capable as anyone else. The Longhorns have played a schedule chalk full of playoff-caliber teams and haven’t had trouble scoring. In fact, with Richie Kenney improving, Bruno emerging and players like Tyler Gillis filling roles from last year, they look as good on offense as they’ve been in a while. A 3-2 record could, possibly, win region this year. It could come down to crazy tiebreakers.