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The top Forsyth County sports stories of 2018, and what to watch for in 2019
sports year in review 2018
Photos by Brian Paglia and Ben Hendren.

The past year was an eventful one for Forsyth County sports, as all of them are. But 2018 felt particular so: The county had its first NFL Draft pick, its two highest MLB Draft picks ever, a state final matchup between two county schools, and a whole new high school spring into existence. Here's our review of the top stories from 2018, along with a look ahead at what could grab the most headlines this year.

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Colby Gossett blocks on a run play for the Appalachian State football team in a game against Louisiana-Lafayette on Dec. 2, 2017 at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, N.C. Photo by Allyson Lamb, Appalachian State.

North alum Colby Gossett reaches the NFL

North Forsyth alum and former Appalachian State offensive lineman Colby Gossett had quite the year after declaring for April’s NFL Draft. He played in the Reese’s Senior Bowl and put up some good measurables at the NFL Combine. Among all linemen at the event, he ran the 10th best 40-yard dash and put up the fourth best bench press.

Gossett made history by becoming the first Forsyth County football player to get drafted, being selected 213th overall in the sixth round by the Minnesota Vikings. His excitement didn’t last long, though. After signing his rookie contract in May, he was waived in September and was signed to the Vikings’ practice squad. The Arizona Cardinals saw potential in him, though, signing him to their active roster in October. After Mike Iupati was placed on injured reserve, Gossett got his first start at guard against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 9, a role he kept until the Cardinals’ season ended.

Denmark High School opens with a flourish

Forsyth County’s newest high school opened in August, and the Danes didn’t have to wait long to see success in multiple sports. The school’s first athletic event was a softball game against Johns Creek on Aug. 7. The Danes jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead after multiple mistakes and walks from Johns Creek. With all of that run support, pitcher Taylor Gajdik easily wrapped the shortened 10-0 win in five innings. The team signed a game ball after the momentous victory, which is now on display in Denmark’s trophy case.

On Sept. 7, Denmark football faced off with the county’s oldest school, Forsyth Central, and came away with a defensive 7-3 victory that surprised some. Behind the duo of receiver Ze’Vian Capers and quarterback Ben Whitlock, The Danes finished 5-5, a solid season for a first year team. With everyone coming back, Denmark is looking to be a force in Class 4A during its second season this fall.

Beer and Hankins set the bar for MLB Draft picks

This past spring, more professional scouting attention was directed towards Forsyth County, directly and indirectly, than ever before: Forsyth Central senior pitcher Ethan Hankins and Clemson junior designated hitter Seth Beer, a Lambert alum, both entered the season as potential first-round MLB Draft picks. On the ground in Cumming, the buzz was not just palpable but visible, as scouts and executives crowded into the pavement between Central’s backstop and concession stand whenever Hankins would start, radar guns trained and notebooks at the ready.

In some ways, both players fell short of the hype. Beer again failed to replicate his astonishing freshman year numbers, and his deficiencies in fielding and foot speed continued to be marks against him. Hankins missed around a month with a shoulder issue, and when he returned, he couldn’t replicate the form he attained during his astonishing summer season the prior year. But when both players went in the first round of the draft, Beer at 28th overall to the Astros and Hankins at 35th overall to the Indians, it still felt like nothing less than a triumph for the county’s still-rising baseball scene.

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Forsyth Central's Jackson Leak celebrates with the Bulldogs' student section after Central beat Chamblee, 42-7, on Aug. 17, 2018. - photo by Ben Hendren

Central football completes impressive turnaround

The last decade of football for Forsyth Central had been largely forgettable, with 2017’s 0-10 season being the absolute low point. Coming off of that season’s futility, the Bulldogs’ prospects for a turnaround didn’t look great to start the season, with season-ending injuries to quarterback Hunter Cagle and linebacker Mitch Weber threatening to derail their year before it began. Later in the year, backup quarterback Ryan Van Uum was lost as well.

Central didn’t let their bad luck define them, though, winning their first game in two years during their season opener against Chamblee before embarking on a historic rest of the year. The Bulldogs defeated North Forsyth for their first county win in 11 years, and they later pulled off a shocking upset of South Forsyth to punch a ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Central is set to lose some key seniors, but it hopes its recent culture change can last well into the future.

County runners dominate state championships

On a frigid morning in Carrollton on Nov. 3, multiple Forsyth County runners made their marks at the GHSA state cross country meet at Carrollton High School. South Forsyth had the most success in team competition, with the boys team taking home the Class 7A state title, led by frontrunner Michael Patterson, who finished 11th overall. Junior Madelynne Cadeau finished third overall to pace the War Eagle girls to a second place team finish.

Forsyth Central’s teams didn’t qualify for the state meet, but Area 3-7A individual champion Calan Gizelbach made the trip to represent the Bulldogs. Gizelbach didn’t meet his goal of an individual state championship, but he still put on a very strong performance by finishing second overall behind East Coweta’s Kyle Harkabus, the only runner fast enough to best him.

Lambert boys lacrosse is historically good

The fact that the Lambert boys lacrosse team was good was not a particularly big story, because they had almost never not been, with three state titles to their name entering 2018. But even with the loss of key seniors and eventual Division I players like Eric Overbay and Jared Jean-Felix, it became gradually evident that 2018’s Longhorns, were uniquely good, and potentially one of the best teams in any sport to ever come out of the county. Their 22-0 record said as much.

The Longhorns’ game against Centennial on March 16 was expected to be their most competitive yet, as the Knights, a perennial contender themselves, were also ranked among the top teams in the country. But then Lambert won 15-4, and the teams looked just as distant as the score indicated. One of the scant times the Longhorns did look mortal actually came against the Knights, when Lambert had to pull out a 15-14 overtime win in a game when ace faceoff specialist Phil White was hobbled with an injury. But in every other game, the Longhorns scored double-digit goals while holding their opponent in single digits.

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North Forsyth girls basketball players raise the Region 5-7A championship trophy on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. - photo by Lily McGregor Photography

North girls basketball gives county third girls basketball semifinalist

North Forsyth’s girls basketball team went on a run for the ages in 2018, becoming just the third county girls team in history to reach the state semifinals and the first squad to do it since South accomplished the feat in 2014.

But unlike that War Eagles team, the Raiders weren’t blown out or outmatched in that round. Against a nationally-ranked Westlake team, North did everything it could to show it belonged on that stage, trailing by a single point at the end of the third and by five with a mere 42 seconds left to play. North actually held a lead at one point in the final quarter, with Catherine Shope connecting on a three to put the Raiders up 36-33.

An 11-0 Westlake run followed her shot, though, which put North away for good. Still, the Raiders’ dominant season now stands as one of the best in Forsyth County history.

West volleyball makes dramatic run to the semifinals

Heading into the state playoffs as a No. 4 seed after an inconsistent regular season, West Forsyth volleyball was hardly a favorite to make any kind of deep run. Yet, that’s exactly what the Wolverines put together, getting to the doorstep of the state championship match. With their never-say-die attitude, West began the playoffs with wins over Grayson and Brookwood, each seeded higher than the Wolverines.

The highlight of the Wolverines’ run came against Lassiter, a team that had only lost five times to that point. After a rough start, West began to match the Trojans and did just enough to best them, prevailing in two sets that were tied late. The Wolverines secured a decisive fifth set 16-14 to launch themselves into celebration.

In the Final Four, West faced a familiar foe in Area 5-7A champion Milton and took a set from the Eagles. That’s where the run ended, though, but despite how it turned out, the Wolverines, just grateful to be there, had plenty of smiles to go around.

More county domination at state cheer

Forsyth County has long been a hotbed of competition cheerleading success, and 2018 was no exception. Lambert’s squad secured the fifth state championship in school history, securing a perfect score of 110 at the state meet to reclaim the title after losing it to South in 2017. Lambert also became the first school in the short history of Region 5-7A to win both the region and state titles in the same year.

South finished as Class 7A’s runner-up, and the rest of the county’s schools weren’t far behind – West and North finished third and fifth, and Central earned a sixth place finish in the co-ed competition. Denmark’s cheer team made some history during its first year of existence, claiming the school’s first-ever region title in any sport and finishing as the runner-up in Class 4A.

Lambert wins fourth straight Director’s Cup

Lambert’s athletic teams continued their recent success during the 2017-18 school year, with the Longhorns securing their fourth straight Director’s Cup back in May. Lambert finished with 1,278 points, ahead of Region 5-7A opponent Milton, who had 1,147.

The Longhorns’ boys teams finished first in the standings, bolstered by state championship wins in soccer and lacrosse to go along with other deep playoff runs and a state runner-up finish by the boys cross country team. The girls finished second behind Walton, with girls tennis and swimming and diving finishing as state runners-up. Volleyball and softball made deep runs to lift the girls as well.

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Lambert's Jay Patterson embraces teammate Nick Alliston after the Longhorns won the Class 7A boys soccer state championship on Saturday, May 12 at McEachern High School. - photo by Ben Hendren

Lambert and South boys soccer square off in state final

In their less than 10 years as rivals-by-proximity, South Forsyth and Lambert have quite a few competitive clashes, in football, baseball, volleyball and more. But never before had they met on the biggest possible stage: a GHSA state final. It almost happened in girls soccer in 2017 – and should have, given that Grayson, who best South in the semifinals, later had that win vacated – but the same sport, on the boys side, produced that fateful matchup in 2018.

The Longhorns and War Eagles both entered the playoffs on long unbeaten streaks, but their methods of doing so varied. Lambert, loaded with midfield and attacking talent, routinely clobbered opponents by three or more goals, while South, a team built on natural defenders forced into other spots, kept things much tighter. The teams’ playoff paths were a reflection of that: The Longhorns won 2-1 in the opening round but then 2-0, 3-0 and 5-0 in the next three, while South won twice in penalties and once in extra time. The final wasn’t exactly a thriller, with the 3-2 score only being finalized when the War Eagles scored just before the final whistle, but it still felt like a historic matchup.

West gymnastics repeats emphatically, but not without some anxiety

The West Forsyth gymnastics team’s 2017 state title was particularly triumphant: Wolverines head coach Ashley Owen had built the program up from scratch, convincing girls in the heavily club-oriented sport to come and represent their school, and the title, which West narrowly won over Buford, was the school’s first ever in any team sport.

In terms of meet-day drama, West’s 2018 title didn’t come close to the previous year’s, as the Wolverines wound up almost four points clear of second-place North Oconee. The anxiety that preceded that day, though, was plentiful. Star junior Sienna Schreiber had decided not to participate in high school gymnastics before changing her mind close to the season. And a scheduling conflict between a vital club event and the state semifinals threatened to render Schreiber and teammate Ella Castellanos ineligible for the finals, which would have seriously endangered West’s chances of a repeat. Owen and other county figures went down to Macon to appeal to the GHSA for a fix, which they wound up getting just before regionals.

It might not have been obvious from the final result, but the Wolverines certainly fought for this title.

 

...And five to watch for in 2019
Two more basketball postseason runs?

The North Forsyth girls’ semifinal run was plenty exciting in itself, and adding to that feeling was the realization that the Raiders’ chance at another one could come the very next season. This season’s North team is considerably different from the last, with even more emphasis on guards compared to a team that was already geared that way, but Caroline Martin and Ansley Allen have proven to be a potent duo, and the Raiders might be even deeper than last year’s squad. And if it doesn’t happen this year, that’s okay, because almost everyone is set to come back.

The same could be true of the Lambert boys, another county team with considerable playoff ambitions. Senior point guard Mitch Ganote is the Longhorns’ undisputed leader, but talented juniors like Braxton Beaty, Luke Champion and Colin Granger are all growing into roles as go-to threats. A favorable bracket would certainly help, but if Lambert fulfills the potential its talent suggests, the Longhorns might not even need one.

South’s Sims the next big baseball star?

The wait for the county’s next big draft prospect might not be much of a wait at all. South Forsyth’s Landon Sims has been among the top baseball players in the county in his age group for a while now, having represented Team USA and committed to Mississippi State before his sophomore season began, and his dominant junior season was further proof of his stardom. His fastball reached 97 mph this past summer, and like Hankins and Beer, he appeared in the Perfect Game All-American Classic, one of the country’s premier showcase games.

At this point, Sims isn’t quite the prospect Hankins was. He’s shorter, shows less room for growth, and has less of a track record than Hankins did at this point, owing partly to Sims’ commitment to playing football. But the MLB Draft is uniquely unpredictable, with late changes in velocity and the issue of signability catapulting prospects up and down the board, and if Sims’ pitches keeps moving forward and he stays healthy, going in a similar range to Beer and Hankins seems within reach.

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Lambert sophomore Elli Prybylski (12) celebrates with teammates after her second half goal Friday against Forsyth Central. - photo by Brian Paglia

The scale of Lambert’s soccer domination

Lambert’s soccer programs almost certainly won’t take a step back this spring. Most of last year’s state champion boys team is coming back, making a repeat title easy to imagine. But the Longhorns girls are primed for more of a resurgence. That program won a state title to cap a dominant 2017 season, but the institution of the U.S. Development Academy, a new level of club play that forced top players to leave the high school ranks, sapped a huge amount of talent from the Longhorns, who finished 8-9-1 and missed the playoffs in 2018. Those prodigal players will soon be returning, though, as Concorde Fire, a top local club program, has eliminated their DA program. With the return of premier Division I-bound talents like Ellie Prybylski (Kansas), Sydney Hennessey (Tennessee) and Madison Haugen (Georgia), the Longhorns look to have a strong chance to regain their status as a juggernaut.

West girls lax’s potential entry into the elites

The county’s girls lacrosse landscape has been much more level than the boys’ in recent years, but it was slanted heavily in West Forsyth’s favor in 2018. The Wolverines dispatched every county opponent they faced in a 15-3 regular season and won their first-round playoff matchup before falling 11-9 to Mill Creek in the second round. And despite the loss of head coach Barney Marchand to Denmark’s boys program, the Wolverines should be almost entirely intact for 2019. The vast majority of last year’s team was non-seniors, and all five of West’s All-County players, including the dangerous attack duo of Ella Madson and Cami Merkel, are set to return for 2019. It remains to be seen whether the Wolverines will be able to challenge a national power like Milton, but their chances of again being tops in the county look very strong.

Year two for Denmark football

Of all the teams a first-year high school has to assemble and try to make competitive, football might be the hardest, with its large numbers and paramount emphasis on team identity. And while Denmark was certainly heartened by a lot of what happened during its 5-5 debut season, like its 7-3 win over Class 7A playoff team Forsyth Central, the Danes were also somewhat disappointed. Denmark knew it was talented, with an explosive receiver in Ze’Vian Capers and a pair of reliable junior linebackers in Zach Burchfield and Nick Carozza, and making the Class 4A playoffs was a serious goal.

But in Denmark’s second year, the Danes’ situation will go from unenviable to, well, the exact opposite. With basically the entire team set to come back – not counting injuries and attrition, of course – the Danes could be not just an easy playoff pick, but one of the top squads in the entire class. They play in one of the toughest regions in the state, and that’s unlikely to change in 2019, but with an already rich pool of talent and now the advantage of having a year together, the possibilities for this program look extremely intriguing.