From staff reports
Who had a stronger start to the school year than South Forsyth?
Football made the state playoffs for the first time since 2010. Softball won a series for the first time in the Georgia High School Association’s current state playoff format. Girls cross country finished second in AAAAAA at the state meet. Volleyball reached the state quarterfinals. Cheerleading won state sectionals.
And that was just the fall.
“We started off the school year just on a roar,” South athletic director and girls basketball coach Keith Gravitt said.
Maybe the roar dimmed a little the rest of the school year, but it never faded: girls basketball won a region championship, baseball and girls soccer reached the state playoffs, track sent more athletes than ever before to the state meet.
Forsyth County News sports editor Brian Paglia talked with Gravitt about the War Eagles’ strength in female sports, what a new gymnasium will offer and how feeder programs are impacting South athletics:
How would you describe the athletic season at South Forsyth as a whole?
“I know you weren’t at graduation, but principal [Jeff] Cheney said it best; we started off the school year just on a roar. Our football started out 6-1, 7-1 at one point and makes it to the state playoffs for the first time in five years I believe. Our softball team is ranked in the top 10 and makes it to the second round of the state playoffs and is the region runner-up. It just kept going with our volleyball as area runner-up and made it to the state quarterfinals. Cheerleading was region runner-up and wins the sectionals. And wrapping up the fall is cross country. We had a girl team that winds up winning the region and finishing second at state. Our boys are region runner-up and have a great showing at state.
“The start of our year was awesome. Got a lot of those kids coming back from those sports. Had a lot of good individual accomplishments. You build that success, and hopefully you build a little confidence with that as well. I think it poured into the rest of the year. I firmly believe this – I’ve said it before, and I believe we saw it with all of our schools in Forsyth County this year – if you’re extracurricular get off to a great start to the school year I think you’re going to have a great school year.
“In the winter, our swim teams did great at state. Blake Atmore, what a great swimmer and a great season. We had six kids make it to state in wrestling. Our basketball season, I don’t mean to brag on our girls, but real happy with the season they had. They reached their goal. I heard some people say, Well you didn’t have as good a season as you did before. I think that’s very short-sighted. The girls accomplished a region championship. It was a battle all the way through for all the teams in our county; all four made the state playoffs. All of them did well. We just happened to run up against a buzz saw in McEachern (in the second round of the state playoffs), but I think we gave them a heck of a game. I really do.
“The boys basketball team, they were in so many games that they might not have should have been. They had a player get hurt during the summer. If everybody had been there, I think they would have been battling to get in the state playoffs. I really think they had a good season for what they had to go through.
“Then, going into the spring. Girls track sent about eight girls to the state meet. Boys track sent more than we’ve ever sent in AAAAAA to the state meet. Girls soccer in the state playoffs this year. They were probably a goal away from having a chance at the region championship. It was so competitive. I see lots of improvement continuing to happen in our lacrosse program. We had some great individual performances, like Madison Mueller. She scored 94 goals this season. Our girls golf team had a great season, and our boys were right there, but no seniors on that team. Baseball back in the state playoffs this year.
“I’m just so proud of where our county is right now. I’m proud of South. Lambert keeps raising the bar, and we’ve got to respond to that, and not just us. It doesn’t matter who it is. In every sport there’s somebody you’ve got to respond to. What I need to ask the coaches is how can the school and athletic department help you and our student-athletes be better?”
South finish fifth in AAAAAA in the Regions Directors Cup in girls sports. Why do you think your school has such strong girls athletics?
“I think if you look overall in our county, the girls athletics has traditionally been very competitive. If you look at the banners here, the banners at North, Lambert even. All of our schools. The only GHSA state championship in basketball was the Forsyth County girls back in 1957. I’ve lived here all my life and I saw my sister play on great basketball teams and great softball teams and ran on the track team. I’ve seen that for a long time.
“Our girls teams had a good run this year, and we’ve got a lot of those female athletes coming back next year in track, cross country, cheerleading, basketball, softball. We’re excited about that. I think what any coach will tell you is once you can sustain a little success it becomes contagious. Those younger kids start realizing they can do this too. They look at what their teammates are doing and they start working harder.”
I’ve heard from a lot of the athletic directors in the county that they’re very excited about the young talent.
“Spring football you get a chance to do that. Now we’ve got spring softball. Next year we’re going to have spring volleyball. So we’ll get to see those kids earlier. But I believe with football you’ve got middle school football, and I think you keep seeing the quality of that improve. These coaches at the middle school do a great job for how everything is set up. I think football, the way they’ve done the middle school tournament and added some games and the playoff format. The other piece with that I think we see are the feeder programs with sports that we don’t have at the middle school level. It’s the middle school kid, but the high school is getting to those kids earlier and we’re identifying them earlier or we’re getting them hooked in that sport and they’re loving it and having fun. I think that’s what you see in lacrosse, and then volleyball, the numbers keep going up in those sports.”
“My expectation as an athletic director for the head coaches to be the originator of feeder programs, but I believe we want to support that in a way that doesn’t negate the great work that our middle schools are doing.”
“But if you get feeder programs going in the fifth or sixth grades, that’s where it’s really going to help you. They’re ready to go and they’re War Eagles. I think the feeder concept, I’m not sure we’re got every kink worked out of the feeder program process but I sure know that it’s going in the right direction.”
What’s all this construction going to offer you guys?
“You take the bad with the good. It’s going to be a rough 12 or 14 months, and we know that, but we’re so thankful for our Board of Education being proactive and identifying our needs. They allowed us to be very involved with our facilities that are going to be added, repurposed and improved. In particular for us we’re getting the new competition gym. How that’s going to impact us is additional practice space being able to get teams in for their practices. We can’t facilitate all the feeder teams as our own programs grow. You start adding ninth grade volleyball teams and ninth grade lacrosse team and JV competition cheerleading teams. And in addition to the co-curriculars with flag guard and color guard and drum line and all of those. Our new cafeteria is going to be a useful space as well.
“But with a new competition gym we’ll start designating gyms a little bit more and creating space for some offseason workouts that we haven’t been able to do. In the fall, there’s no extra gym space. You’ve got volleyball teams and competition cheer. And then in the winter there sure hasn’t been any space.”
Will the basketball teams play in the new gym?
“Our games will be held in the new facility. I don’t have any misgivings about that, but I sure am going to miss playing in this gym, because there have been some great atmospheres here. Anytime you’re able to fill this gym up or North’s gym, they rock. They do. They’re a great environment. I think they’re home court advantages for our teams to play in. And I’m not discounting the other facilities at Lambert or West, other than the time we got to play in the region championship at West, that really worked out great. It was just packed. We’ll see that occasionally. It’s harder to do that in a 2,600-seat gym compared to a 1,600-seat gym. But when you’ve got 2,800 to 3,000 students and you want to have a pep rally, it’s kind of hard to do that or any other kind of student assembly. That’s another thing that I’m excited as an athletic director, and I know our principal is excited about, we can’t really have fall and sometimes spring pep rallies because our gym’s not big enough to get everybody into it. We’d go out to the football stadium. I’m real excited about that too. That’s something that can add to our atmosphere. We can get school spirit increased with some of that.
“It’s going to open some room for wrestling in the auxiliary gym. That’ll become a more usable space for them. They’ll probably move their Santa Slam into the big gym or whatever name we come up for it. Some of those things will change and be better practice environments.
“We change to the way we enter the stadium, what it will look like, our ticket sales. We’re not sure how it’s going to look yet.”
What things are you look toward in the near future, whether it’s ideas for South or issues with the GHSA?
“I’m sure you’ve talked to Coach Turner about that. I’ve spoken to him and some of the other athletic directors. I think for the most part, we’re so big it’s not going to affect us. I don’t mean that flippantly. They’re talking about this big 44 or 48 or however they’re going to set that up. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of drama. If there is, it’s going to be if it involves just football or everything, because in some states those type of designs are for football only and then you go back to your more conventional state competitions. To me that’s the interesting thing.”
“School spirit-wise, the thing you start talking about early is football. The cheerleading coaches, our student council and Mrs. Wilson have discussed creating theme nights that our students can be a part of. They’ve incorporated in those nights ways for our students to be involved in every home theme night. I’m excited to see how that works. Always looking for a different way for our kids to be involved and love being a War Eagles. In some ways, we’ve got to learn how to cheer for our athletes. They come to a lot of games, but they’re not in our stands cheering for our team, they’re socializing. And that’s not their fault. We’ve got to find a way to make them more focused on cheering for our team. Not that isn’t a social event. We understand that. With things that like you want it to be as student-driven as it can be, because they take more ownership of it. When the students take ownership of it, and they’re more invested – and louder. I think it just comes down to making it more student-focused.”
It sounds like it should be a pretty easy transition to the new principal.
“I think it will be. Mr. Cheney was an athletics guy, a coach and so on. He was really into our athletic teams. And Ms. Wilson is the same way. She’s a very competitive person herself. She was an assistant cheer coach here prior to going to West and coming back. She obviously has a son who is going on to play in a very high level in college baseball. She had a daughter who was on some of our most competitive cheerleading teams ever at our school. She assisted me with athletics for one or two years she was here. She was so helpful to me. She’s all about athletics and student involvement. She’s excited about the facilities and how that’s going to improve our situation. She’s had two jobs to do here at the end of the school year, bless her heart. She’s trying to finish up this school year and all the responsibilities as an assistant principal. The testing part is some of that, and we know how involved that is. But at the same token she was trying to prepare for next school year. Oh, and by the way, she was listening to them tell us our campus was going to be blown up and try to plan for that as well. I don’t think it was a traditional transition.”
Any new coaches coming on board?
“We’re going to have a new boys tennis coach. His name is Jason Steele. He was our JV coach this year. Our coach for the last several years who has been a great tennis coach, and he still wants to be involved, Ivan Zeitlan, he happens to be off campus, and that’s tough. He’s at one of our elementary schools that is a feeder for us, but it’s not across the street at Shiloh. Jason is going to take the varsity role, and we’re thankful Ivan wants to take over our JV.
“Girls track is going to be Nick Wansley is going to take that role. He’s been an assistant at our school with cross country and track. He ran for his dad. His dad’s won some state championships in cross country. The background is there. He’s great with the kids. Real excited about that.
“We’re looking for assistant lacrosse coaches. It’s tough to find lacrosse coaches that fit your teaching positions, especially when they’re English and Science positions sometimes.”
Is Mike Beckley coming back for wrestling?
“Beckley is coming back another year for wrestling, and glad about that.
“Matt Loveless left us with boys golf. He’s going to North to actually work in some type of leadership role in social studies. Jonathan Schreier is going to be our new head boys golf coach. He helped with boys a few years back. He left us and came back and has been helping with our girls golf team.”
That sounds like a lot of transition, but it sounds like people who are familiar with South?
“That transition should be smoother. Fortunate to have some people on staff who are dedicated and want to take on a more involved role. They’re in it for the kids with the amount of time our coaches put in. And I think the quality of each one of those individuals for those programs and the match is really exciting. I’ve gotten to watch [new boys basketball coach Scott] Givens already this summer and hear his passion for the sport and his attention to detail about doing things rig