The 2013-14 season for South Forsyth athletics was all about timing.
As one of the largest incoming freshman classes ever arrived, the War Eagles fall teams gave them quite the first impression.
South’s football team got off to a 6-1 start, the best in school history. The volleyball team ascended to the No. 1 ranking in Class AAAAAA on the way to making the team’s first Final Four appearance. Boys’ cross country won the region championship. Softball was region runner-up and hosted a first round state playoff series.
War Eagles athletic director and girls’ basketball coach Keith Gravitt saw the early success make an impact on the Class of 2017.
"They knew they were going to South, and they just had so much school spirit and were fired up about it," Gravitt said. "And nothing happened at the start [of the school year] to squash that."
Indeed, the school spirit built to a crescendo with Gravitt’s team ending a 44-year drought of a Forsyth County public school girls’ basketball team reaching the Final Four of the state tournament.
Forsyth County News sports editor Brian Paglia talked with Gravitt about South’s challenge living up to this past season’s success and approaching the 3,000 student mark.
What stood out to you about how your teams did and program was able to accomplish?
"Boy, it was a thrilling year for South Forsyth, especially the way we started off. Our football team got off to the best start, I think it tied the best start ever. We were 6-1 at one point. That’s the best start we’ve gotten off to before. Wind up 7-3 and we’re a heartbeat away from making the playoffs.
"I have a firm belief that your athletics have a definite impact on your student body and the pride of your school. Just look as the fall ended. I look at that Final Four by our volleyball team and how impressive they were and how proud of them the school was. Our boys cross country team won a region championship. Our cheerleaders won the region championship. It was just a great start. Our softball team is the region runner-up and hosting a state playoff game here against Grayson, I believe.
"As athletic director, it was the greatest start I can remember our school getting off to. We had a great run in the late 90s, early 2000s, a 2-3 year run where we had lots of success with our fall teams, but I don’t remember any more success [than this season].
"We moved into the winter, and I didn’t know what to expect. [Former wrestling] Coach [Danny] Sinnott was in his second year with the wrestling program. We saw the interest and success starting to grow last year. Shoot, I think at one time I saw them ranked in the top 10. Built a lot of momentum, had a lot of success with our wrestling program. We had swimmers do great in qualifying for state. A couple placed at state. And hope you understand it’s because I’m the coach, but I was proud of the [girls’ basketball program]. I was happier for the school though.
"Look at Forsyth County basketball. We got three teams in the state playoffs … with a possibility to advance, with two of the teams advancing quite far. And it was a special winter for Forsyth County, I think, and it was proven even more. I don’t know if I’ve seen the atmosphere at a region championship basketball game, especially for the girls, that I saw at West Forsyth [for South against North Forsyth]. I’m just blessed to have been a part of it, but I’ve been to a lot of them. I don’t know if I’ve seen one like that before."
It seemed pretty significant for two Forsyth teams to be in that region championship game.
"I couldn’t agree more. Having seen the transition our county’s made … I felt that spoke volumes. I think there’s some competition among our girls that make all these programs good. A great nucleus of players in that group that has driven the competition level."
"I think so. You can talk about cheerleading. These girls and their clubs teams – same thing. I know we’re talking about girls [sports]. I’ll take baseball too. I talk to Mrs. [Laura] Wilson, our assistant principal. Her son plays at West Forsyth, Alec. He plays with some guys on our team, some guys with Lambert in the summer. I really believe that builds the competitiveness. I sort of think that’s what happened in Gwinnett County, and it’s getting here. We had growing pains. We grew in a hurry and got into Class AAAAAA before we were ready competitively. But I think that experience, and I’m speaking of South’s experience in particular, I think that experience and going through that about 8-9 years ago, and for those six years we were in the Gwinnett region, really prepared us for now. We had to grow up and learn – our coaches, our parents, our community and players – and they did."
"You go on to our spring, some people might reflect and say, we didn’t have a great spring. I would disagree. Both of our soccer teams get into the state playoffs. Our boys and girls track teams probably took as many kids to the state meet as we’ve taken in a while. We have a girl place second in the state in two events. Our boys lax program made huge strides. I was at their banquet, and I heard such positive feedback, not from the parents, from the players. They feel like they’ve got the program on the right path, and I think they’re right. Our baseball program was right there until the last week of the season. There was a group of teams where it could’ve been any of them."
Did you notice improved school spirit this year?
"I did. Go back to the fall. We had such a great fall, and I think that’s a key for everything that comes after it. Our volleyball team being ranked so high so early. You see the kids coming out. You see the parents coming out. I do see that. There are a lot of things that play into it though. We’re our own school again now. All the students are South students. I think that’s an important part of that as well."
I would imagine this senior class was one of the first groups post-Lambert where all those kids knew they were going to going to South.
"Yes. They have a right to be [proud] looking back on their year, especially their senior year and the challenges they faced and came through them. We had one senior on our girls’ basketball team. I look at a senior getting pulled out late in the season to be goalie for our boys’ soccer team, Sam Walker. You talk to them and they say, ‘I couldn’t have dreamed for my senior year to have gone any better, and I’m so happy I kept working.’ I look for their impact on our school to carry over. Even with that school pride part. I think this last freshman class had a lot to do with that."
The one that came in this year?
"They were very invested in our extracurricular activities and coming to support our teams. I’d look up into the stands during football games and I’d see a huge group of freshmen out there. Of course, they’re the biggest class in the school now. They’re a big class, especially compared to our juniors and seniors. That’s what’s pushing us up toward 3,000 [students] in the coming year. They knew they were going to South Forsyth, and they just had so much school spirit and were fired up about it. And nothing happened at the start to squash that. Football’s doing great. Softball’s doing great. Volleyball’s doing great. Cross country teams are competing in everything they go to or winning or having individuals win meets. I think that just fueled them. If I remember correctly, we had the biggest crowds for lacrosse we’ve ever had this year for home games. They want to be at everything."
That’s great timing to have a large freshman class come in and see success.
"That bar is set."
As AD, what are some issues that you have on your radar?
"When you’re successful and you’re not on the radar, nobody knows you are coming. Well, everybody’s going to know South Forsyth volleyball. They’re going to bring their best games for the South Forsyth girls’ basketball team. Same thing for cross country. … That’s a challenge, because that’s a different mindset for your kids. It’s one thing to be chasing it. It’s another thing to start being chased.
"I believe that’s something, and we’ve got coaches who are ready for that challenge. … We’ve got to learn to win or be competitive. We got to know what success is and how we’re going to measure success. Winning’s not the most important thing, but the scoreboards and clocks are turned on, so it does become a measure. So I see that as a new challenge. Exciting challenge though. I think that’s short-term.
"Medium-term, our campus is going to face some challenges with the bond passing. I think there are going to be some functionality challenges, but our school system does such a good job assisting with those things that it’s not going to be an obstacle. It’s just going to be something new that we’re going to have to deal with, and I’m glad that we’re getting to deal with."
You mean some work getting done around campus?
"We’re supposed to have some additions and repurposing of some areas at our school for the first time since I’ve been here, other than the performing arts center, but every school got that. That’s exciting though. That’s an exciting challenge to have to look ahead to. Again, the functionality of our campus while it’s going on in the midrange and then how we utilize it after. I’m exciting about that. I’m looking forward to getting a huge new cafeteria and a new competition gym.
"Long-term, I think our challenge as a school athletically is going to fall around our county as a whole’s growth and how that affects school districting. Our Board of Education has the hardest job in the county, probably with that in particular. That’s a tough challenge. South’s gone through two schools being created out of it. It’s part of who we are in Forsyth County. We’re growing, and you have to embrace that. Hopefully those experiences help us with those transitions in the future."
Because the projections are for a new high school to be built in 3-5 years?
"I think that’s right with what was on the school system’s projections. It appears that that’s going to affect us. That’s not a negative thing I don’t think. Every challenge can be turned into a positive. … We’ve gone through that before. We’re probably going to wind up being bigger than we’ve ever been before any of those happen."
What are the challenges for an athletic department of a school that starts getting in that 3,000-student mark?
"We’ve had some teams added. I’m thinking about our ninth grade boys’ lacrosse [team], and I’m sure girls are going to be there before you know it. Well that does add a functionality challenge in order to find practice time. When you’re talking about going from the mid-40s in the program to pushing 70, you’ve got to have two possibly three practice times.
"We’ve got to be creative in making sure we can accommodate the needs of these, because on the flip side, what is our No. 1 priority? It’s the kids, and it’s proven that students who are involved in extracurricular [activities] are more successful in the classroom. If there’s some way we can do that through athletics – we’ve got other avenues, but we’re talking about athletics – I think we need to look at that, but at the same time we don’t want to diminish our ability to be competitive because we’re limiting practice times or not having practice space. We’re fortunate we have parks and rec who work with us with a lot of these challenges that we face with that particular piece. And we have some churches in addition to that."
What are some issues the Georgia High School Association should have on its radar?
"I think GHSA’s high school challenge still, and I don’t know what the answer is immediately, but the classification process is going to continue to be a challenge. You take our region as an example. Nine of the 10 schools are within 14 or 16 miles of one another. One is 80 miles away. That’s not Habersham Central’s fault, and I’m not saying it’s the GHSA’s fault.
"With the cost of continuing to growth athletics – because that’s what’s happening. There are sports out there that we’re not a part of. I can think right off the top of my head of fencing. I know they want to be GHSA sanctioned. There’s a group out there pushing for boys’ volleyball. We had a group that participated in a club-level, school-identified team this spring. I’m not saying that I disagree with it or that I agree. I think it goes back to facilities.
"I do think the homeschool thing is going to continue to be out there. We see more and more students being homeschooled. What direction is GHSA going to go? I’m not a big advocate of homeschooled students being a part of public school extracurricular [activities]. I do understand their desire to be involved."
What are the current rules for homeschooled students?
"They’re not allowed. They’ve got to be enrolled in your school. There are some avenues that they can take some virtual classes, some things Georgia high schools have created, but they do have to be enrolled. And some sports that that is particularly prevalent right now are golf, tennis and gymnastics, some of those where they’re training full-time for that. But I think kids more and more want that high school experience."
Your region [6-AAAAAA] pretty much stays intact. You welcome in Habersham Central and Northview. Are you pleased with that?
"Under the circumstances it was probably the best scenario that could happen. We welcome Habersham to our region. I think it’s more unfortunate to them than to us that they’ve got to make the trips they’ve got to make. They’ve got to do it every time. We’ve just got to do it one time.
"I see our county continuing to grow and Forsyth Central eventually becoming part of this region. And we’ve got one more north Fulton school just across the county line, Cambridge, which I think we’re going to blink our eyes and will potentially be a part of this region."
I recall Milton appealed to join the region.
"Milton’s not far, you know. It’s viable to say that they could. But that goes back to that challenge that the GHSA has. You’ve got competitive balance, but you’ve also got numbers. You’re turning our region into a 13, 14 team region. … When you get that many schools in Gwinnett and Cobb and figuring out how to balance the regions when there are 10 schools south of Macon that are Class AAAAAA schools. What does that look like? How do you put that together? That’s a huge challenge for GHSA.
"It makes sense the way our region is set up. I could see eventually Fulton County saying, ‘Hey we want a Fulton County region, because that’s going to cut down on our travel.’ Well, where would that leave Forsyth County? How do you put our region together? There are 17 schools in Gwinnett County. They’re all Class AAAAAA. They don’t need five schools to balance out their region. You’ve got Cherokee sitting over there, but geographically what makes more sense? North Fulton and Forsyth, in particular south Forsyth, that 400 corridor is easy to put together. And traffic-wise, we didn’t have long trips when we were in the Gwinnett region, but it was a traffic nightmare crossing Interstate 85 and Peachtree Industrial Blvd.
"We’re excited. You look at our region as a whole and want to talk about the year that was had, I’m not sure there were many regions who had a better year than Region 6-AAAAAA. It’s exciting to be part of that."