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PIGSKIN PREVIEW: Denmark's opening highlights the challenges of starting a new football program
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Creekview football coach Terry Crowder yells instructions to his players during a game. Crowder was named Denmark High School's first head football coach Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017.

Terry Crowder doesn’t feel sorry for anyone.

As the former head coach at Chattahoochee, he had to deal with new schools opening up around him and taking the program’s talent. None of that stopped him from winning the 2008 Class 4A state title.

In becoming the first head coach at the newly-christened Denmark High School, Crowder is suddenly finding himself on the other side of that coin, with the Danes filling their roster with players from South Forsyth and West Forsyth. Even when he takes his previous experience coping with new programs into account, he doesn’t feel bad for his counterparts in the slightest.

“If you coach in metro Atlanta, you’d better expect this to happen,” Crowder said at the 2018 Forsyth Sports Media Day. “It’s just growing so fast.”

Denmark isn’t the first school in recent years to go through the grind of being a first-year program in Forsyth County, with West and Lambert both opening within the last 15 years. It’s also not the first time that any of the existing campuses around the area will have to endure the challenge of having young talent ripped away.

When Crowder accepted the task of starting a program from the ground up, he quickly realized the gravity of what he signed up for. There could be no pointing fingers at a past regime and no blame to be directed to coaches he didn’t want there. Whatever was created, good or bad, was on him and his staff.

“The biggest difference that I can see when you come in is what you don’t inherit,” he said. “I’m not inheriting any problems. I didn’t inherit any bad coaches. I got to get those guys that I wanted. That’s the biggest pleasant surprise that I’ve had.”

While Crowder was able to shape the coaching staff in every way that he wanted, the players were a different story. Many of them did not choose to leave their previous schools. The vast majority came from South, and transitioning to a new, smaller program from a bigger, recently successful one was not an easy prospect for them at first.

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Frank Hepler went 49-18 in six varsity seasons as West Forsyth's head football coach. Hepler resigned Monday after seven seasons with the Wolverines. - photo by Brian Paglia
“All of our players who were newly districted at Denmark, we didn’t really want to go,” junior linebacker Nick Carozza said. “We were not looking forward to it. We didn’t know what the coaches were going to be like or anything. When coach Crowder met with us, that really changed our minds. We sat down with (the coaches) and they really knew what they were talking about, and that’s what pushed us forward to commit to Denmark.”

Most of the players South lost were underclassmen, but the War Eagles didn’t escape redistricting unscathed, with Carozza and highly-touted junior receiver Ze’Vian Capers both leaving for Denmark.

“That’s the hand we were dealt,” South head coach Jeff Arnette said. “That happened several months ago. Since that day, it’s been focusing on the team we’ve got. To be honest with you, it’s probably been as good an offseason as we’ve had. Teenagers forget quick. Coaches have to forget quick.”

Frank Hepler, the current head coach at Forsyth Central, has the most experience founding new football programs of anyone in the county, having been the first head coach at West when it opened in 2007 and then in 2015 accepting the head coaching job at Discovery High School in Gwinnett County, starting that program before taking the open Central job prior to the season.

“It’s a process,” Hepler said. “I know coach Crowder’s going through it right now. Thinking back at when we went to West, I remember little things like, we got 10 boxes one day with 100 helmets in it, and the facemasks weren’t on. We had to sit there and put all the facemasks on. It took three days to put all the facemasks on the helmets. Those are little things you don’t think about with football, but you’re ordering socks, you’re ordering decals. There’s so many things that you have to do when you open up a program.”

One of the other aspects of a new program that Hepler discovered was the difference in timelines. While established programs can begin preparing for the next season after the current one ends, Hepler’s Wolverines had to wait until May, when the new players came in. That left months of catching up to do.

A key difference between Denmark and the last two Forsyth schools that have opened is the initial competition level. West and Lambert both had JV schedules during their first seasons.

For Hepler, playing a varsity schedule during his first year leading the Wolverines would have been an unenviable task, and he was pleased to have a full year where his team could just focus on itself. West and Lambert both went 8-2 in their first varsity seasons in 2008 and 2010, respectively, and Hepler credits the year playing JV for much of West’s early varsity success.

“At West, I had never opened a program, so we were lucky to stay as a JV schedule that first year,” he said. “We did play two varsity games against East Jackson, but they were a smaller school that was fairly new also. Some guys might like the fact that, ‘Hey, we're going right into varsity. We can sell that.’ I think it just depends on the coach.”

Crowder and the Danes will not have the same luxury. Denmark will instead be thrown right into the varsity flames, albeit in a smaller class. That doesn’t mean their region will be a walk: The Danes will be competing alongside Blessed Trinity and Marist, who both played in last season’s Class 4A state championship game.

How Denmark will respond to playing a varsity schedule in its first year remains to be seen. The Danes have a handful of talented upperclassmen, but much of the team will consist of freshmen and sophomores who have never competed under the Friday night lights. With everything set for their first game against Cherokee Bluff, all that’s left for the Danes to do is to unite under one banner.

“The hard thing is there was a closeness with these kids to the schools that they’ve been at,” Crowder said. “What we’ve tried to do is establish, ‘We’re Denmark now, and we’re proud of who we are.’”