At the end of the 2017 Forsyth County Media Day this past Wednesday – after the county’s seven football-playing high school teams presented themselves before the community, strutting to and from the stage in crisp uniforms in front of teammates and moms and dads and athletic directors and booster club presidents and others – it was one of the county’s newest head coaches who put the event into perspective.
“It kind of put it on my calendar that, OK, football season is kicking off right now,” West Forsyth's Shawn Cahill said.
Indeed, it is. The first official conditioning practices began the day before. The first official practices in pads can begin this coming Tuesday. The first scrimmages are Aug. 11. The first games come the week after.
For 140 minutes, coaches and players answered our questions about the upcoming season. We got into the details – the position battles and breakout stars – but also zoomed out to talk about the big picture to get an idea of where football in this county is headed.
We got lots of answers – Lambert seems confident in new quarterback Bobby Gabriel; Forsyth Central feels more comfortable in its second year with head coach Frank Hepler; and South Forsyth wants to get Jared Honey more touches on offense, hence his move from fullback to tailback.
But, we also still have plenty of questions going into the season, ones we just won’t know the answers to until those first games begin Aug. 18.
Here are five questions I still have about Forsyth County football going into the season:
How will the new quarterbacks fare?
The position had some rare star power to it last season. Four of the five senior starters from a year ago are now playing at Division I schools in West Forsyth’s Kiernen Hamilton (Southern Illinois), Lambert’s Richie Kenney (Cornell), Pinecrest Academy’s Ryan McCarthy (The Citadel) and South Forsyth’s Davis Shanley (Western Kentucky).
So who are the next stars?
Only two starters return at the position from last season. North Forsyth senior Ben Bales established his standing in the county with a school-record 2,005 yards to go along with 15 touchdowns. Forsyth Central senior Brad Thiltgen started seven games before a season-ending injury.
Elsewhere, county teams are turning to some familiar albeit inexperienced sources.
Lambert, South and West are turning to former wide receivers Bobby Gabriel, Cal Morris and Zach Burns, respectively. Pinecrest Academy is turning to Mickey Mangan in its transition away from the triple option. Jake McIntyre takes over at Horizon Christian Academy after Jacob Grinstead propelled the Warriors into GICAA state contenders.
But the county’s coaches and programs have seemed to make smooth transitions from quarterback to quarterback in my brief time here.
Can someone make a deep playoff run?
The quarterfinals has become the mark of a successful state playoff run for a Forsyth County GHSA team, if only because that’s the furthest a county team has advanced since North Forsyth reached the state semifinals in 2001. We’re now two seasons removed from the last one: South Forsyth’s memorable run in 2015 and its compelling game against eventual state-champion Colquitt County at War Eagle Stadium.
Who will be next? It’s a hard thing to forecast.
A successful team returning a large group of starters is usually a good indicator. No one in the county fits that bill.
But that’s not a requisite. I sure didn’t see that South run coming, not with as many starters as they had to replace going into the season, but the replacements proved themselves.
This county has proven that anything is possible.
What will be the impact of new head coaches?
Pinecrest Academy’s Terance Mathis and West Forsyth’s Shawn Cahill are both taking over winners. The Paladins have made the Class 1A private school state playoffs three straight seasons and won a first-round game the last two. West Forsyth has made the state playoffs six of the past seven seasons.
But both also step in at interesting junctures for the programs.
Mathis has to replace a bevy of offensive starters, particularly quarterback Ryan McCarthy, who was a four-year starter at the position, and he’s switching the Paladins from the triple option to something more modern. At Media Day, both Mathis and running back Brooks Binkley were coy about it, saying simply, “It’s what you see on Sundays.”
Cahill had to do a minor overhaul of West’s coaching staff after head coach Adam Clack left for Milton, particularly on the offensive side, but that’s where most of the Wolverines’ talent returns. On defense, just two starters return.
Still, both teams figure to remain in the playoff hunt.
Can Lambert defend its region title?
Going into last season, every Forsyth County football program had a region title to its history – except Lambert.
The Longhorns remedied that last season, winning Region 5-7A and then going on to win its first state playoff game in program history.
But history isn’t on their side for a repeat.
That’s because it’s only been done once by a Forsyth County team, when Forsyth Central won back-to-back region titles in 1996 and 1997.
I think the Longhorns have a good shot at bucking county history, though. They return the majority of their offensive line, the county’s most productive running back (Justin Bruno) and two of the county’s most talented defensive backs (Marcus Chatelain, Kenneth Dicks III). Plus, their new starter at quarterback, Bobby Gabriel, is no stranger to the offense or position.
Sure, they have some holes to fill, especially at wide receiver and linebacker, but the core of a region contender is still there.
Can War Eagles put county on the map?
Back to that 2015 state playoff run by South Forsyth – it catapulted the War Eagles’ reputation such that they were invited to participate in the Metro PCS Corky Kell Classic, the state’s prestigious event that kicks off the high school football season. No Forsyth County team had ever been invited before, and South struggled in their Corky Kell debut, losing 27-17 to Hillgrove at McEachern High School.
This time, the War Eagles’ have an even bigger platform in the event.
They play the first game in the metro area, and it’ll be in Georgia State University’s brand-new stadium that used to be Turner Field, former home of the Atlanta Braves. And they face Roswell, the two-time Class 7A state runners-up.
But Roswell went through a major transition this offseason. The Hornets replaced virtually their entire coaching staff after head coach John Ford left to take the same position at Buford, and they also have to replace 20 starters.
South has its own roster questions, but head coach Jeff Arnette has had such rare consistency on his coaching that I expect the War Eagles to be ready to make a big statement to open the season.
Brian Paglia is sports editor at the Forsyth County News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 770-205-8976 or follow him on Twitter at @BrianPaglia.