MILTON – As you drive down GA-9 from Cumming to Fulton County construction sites and service buildings gradually morph into immaculate neighborhoods dissected by roundabouts, greenery, white fences with horses trotting along in the background, and of course increased traffic.
At the nucleus of the forest is a fortress—a magnificent, white-columned building that looks more like the centerpiece of a private college than anything else. It is, however, a public high school—Milton High School.
While Milton High School has a legacy that dates back to 1921, the new school, which opened in 2005, is a sight to behold.
If high schools around the state of Georgia were to represent a sprawling empire likened to Rome, Milton would be the Pantheon. The Coliseum. The Vatican. The center of everything, if you will.
Walk inside the school’s rotunda and you’re welcomed by a seemingly endless hallway. Staircases adorn the right and left sides. To think the place is a publicly funded school is almost unfathomable.
On a summer day the building is empty, except for a few workers here or there making sure to keep the white paint on the walls as fresh as possible. Some of the lights are dimmed.
Still, you can hear the voice of Gary Sylvestri echoing through the halls. He emerges from his office in a red shirt with “MILTON” written across the front. He’s in silver basketball shorts, with a lanyard drooping from his right pocket. Sylvestri’s skin is a deep olive tone, leathery and worn. His right arm is adorned with an impressive tattoo.
Sylvestri is the athletic director at Milton—he has been at the school since 2010, when he started as a football coach. Within two years he was promoted to the athletic director position.
The school itself feels, maybe, a tad superficial—especially for anyone who comes from areas where their schools are under necessary construction for updates just to keep up with the status quo. There’s Under Armour flags hanging from each column down a sidewalk that runs parallel to the football field. Giant graphics and inspirational phrases line the gym. The field turf on the football field is fantastically crisp and rich in color.
How is this place even real?
“The community support here is unreal,” Sylvestri says. “With high demand comes high standards, and obviously everything here is done to a very high standard.”
Get to know Sylvestri. The more he talks, the more you forget about the classic white columns outside.
Like a homecoming
Milton’s championship history is immense. The Eagles have 35 state championships across 11 sports. Girl’s lacrosse has won every single state title since 2005 except for 2009. The basketball and baseball teams are well known for producing top talent—namely, the late Dai-Jon Parker (Vanderbilt) and current Chicago Cub outfielder Dexter Fowler. Really, if you ask about the school’s legacy, the list of names goes on and on.
Starting this fall, Milton will be placed in what seems like an odd situation—the school’s athletic teams will compete in a region comprised of them and five Forsyth County schools.
Outside of Forsyth Central, the four other schools didn’t even start fielding football teams until the late 80s. It started with South Forsyth, then North Forsyth followed in the 90s, then Lambert and West Forsyth popped up in the late 2000s.
Meanwhile, Milton is scrambling to ensure its rivalry with nearby Roswell High School can be preserved through non-region competition. As Sylvestri puts it: “It’s one of the most intense and rooted rivalries not just in Georgia, but in the entire country. Someone stopped me at the grocery store saying I was finally going to get to avoid Roswell and I said to him, ‘No sir.’ We’re playing them every year. If I ran away from Roswell I’d get fired,” he laughs.
But Sylvestri knows a thing or two about Forsyth, and that’s an understatement. After playing football and coaching in Florida, he joined West Forsyth’s football staff in 2007. That was a new venture after two decades spent in the sunshine state as a police officer. He arrived at West as just another assistant football coach on a rag-tag crew, trying to build a football team from scratch.
While there, he made friendships with Adam Clack (West’s current head coach), Nathan Turner (now the county athletic director), Keith Gravitt (South’s current athletic director), Drew Ferrer (Lambert’s athletic director), Dan Kaplan (Central’s athletic director) and, of course, Frank Hepler—now returning to be the head football coach at Central.
Sylvestri lives one mile from West’s campus. He considers himself a Forsyth native. When the GHSA reclassified Milton into the new Region 5-7A with the “Forsyth Five,” he knew it was a perfect fit.
“It felt like a homecoming to me. Just being in that initial meeting and seeing everyone I knew, it wasn’t strange at all. It was great,” Sylvestri said. “Anybody could be the athletic director at Milton and they’d be in that room going, ‘Wait a minute, who are these people?’ But for me, it’s a perfect fit.”
Wanting to take the next step in his career, Sylvestri left for Milton in 2010. He’s made it a family affair. His son, Vinny, coaches the receivers on the football team while his wife, Alisha, is the director of football operations at the school.
There’s nothing superficial about the Sylvestri family. They’re battle-tested.
Alisha is a breast cancer survivor. So is Donna, his sister-in-law. So is Caroline, his mother. His late grandmother, Louise, also survived the same disease.
The tattoo on the inside of his right arm is an over-sized pink ribbon. You can see it from the highest seat in Milton’s bleachers.
“They’re all amazing,” he says. He leaves it at that. What else has to be said?
But Sylvestri also has a mantra that he puts on himself, and it comes from his history in law enforcement.
“As an officer, I saw a lot of kids who were great athletes and they’d just screw up. It’s easy to be cynical when you’re in that profession too,” he said. “But being a coach, you realize there’s good people out there—good people who end up in bad situations. They need people like us—coaches. They need those who can be there and give back to the community, to create culture. We need more people in coaching who see that. There’s a bigger picture than wins and losses when you’re mentoring students.
“You learn to be humble. You have to be humble in everything you do. If not, shame on you.”
Milton’s most recent championships come from girl’s lacrosse in 2015, with baseball in 2013. Those at Lambert know of Milton well. The Eagles won the 2013 title, then were defeated by the Longhorns during Lambert’s national championship season in 2014, then got revenge with a first-round defeat on the diamond in 2015.
“Obviously there’s a rivalry right there,” Sylvestri said.
Rivalries are sure to happen. The first week of region play during football season has been set up as rivalry week: Central will play North, South will play Lambert…
…West will play Milton.
“There was a joke when we set up those games. ‘Where’s the rivalry there?’ I think it’s implied that’s going to be a big one,” Sylvestri says. “Obviously I know them well and they’re travel partners for us—we’re only a few miles away from the county border.”