South Forsyth’s boys soccer team might have had the longest season if not for the War Eagles’ competition cheer squad.
South soccer started practice in January, navigated through the regular season and postseason before ending its season four months later in the state championship. However, South’s cheer squad has them beat by a couple of months.
The Georgia High School Association set Aug. 1 as the earliest date for cheerleading practice, but it wasn’t until Feb. 16 – more than six months later – that the War Eagles captured their eighth state championship.
In fact, it wasn’t until earlier this summer that the War Eagles received their state championship rings.
“I think it’s the longest season Georgia high school has ever had, possibly,” South athletic director Keith Gravitt said. “They were shut down a couple of times with some COVID-related tracing. A number of the teams in the state did, and they still went on to compete at the highest level in our state.”
As did several programs at South during the 2020-21 school year, a year marked by both uncertainty and celebration. In all, South counted five state championships, including three individual titles. In addition to competition cheer and boys soccer, Chris Nelson and Riley Jones won in track and field, and Carmel Yonas started the year with an individual title in cross country.
FCN: What sticks out to you most when you look back on the 2020-21 school year at South Forsyth?
South Forsyth Year in Review
Region titles: 4 [Competition cheer, girls cross country, softball, boys basketball.]
Team state titles: 2 [Competition cheer, boys soccer.]
Individual state titles: 3 [Riley Jones, T&F; Chris Nelson, T&F; Carmel Yonas, XC.]
Director’s Cup finish: 6th in Class 7A [11th in boys; 6th in girls.]
Best boys state finish: First, boys soccer.
Best girls state finish: First, competition cheer.
College signees: 25
Gravitt: “I think you’ve heard so many people say already, at so many levels, that there was a lot that went into just being able to get started last year. With that being said, as our athletics unfolded and some delays got put in there, and you’re like, ‘OK, is it going to happen? Yeah, it’s going to happen.’ And you’re excited and you’re at that first ball game and at that first contest our kids got to play. At the same time, in the back of our minds. I think we had those spring kids that didn’t get to hardly have a season. So, as the year was going, you had that anxiousness about, ‘Is that going to happen again?’”
“I tell people this all the time: I’m proud when I say this, but at the same time, I realize the magnitude of the impact it’s had on our community. South Forsyth has had three school carved out of it, and this community, and these students, and this school has just rose up every time. To see what we’re doing now is just very fulfilling. It’s just proof of what kind of resilient teachers, players, coaches that we have here. You’re talking to me about athletics, but I also see it in the academics and the arts, where so many of our students excel in multiple areas. I’m very proud to say I’m part of South Forsyth High School.”
FCN: Have you ever had a program enter the playoffs as a No. 4 seed and win a state championship the way boys soccer did?
Gravitt: “Well, from my understanding that is the first four seed to ever win a 7A state championship in soccer, so it would be hard to say we’ve had a four seed in any other sport – and that’s in the history of Georgia’s highest classification. That’s my understanding for boys soccer for that to have ever happened. Obviously, here as a school, we compete in a region that provides that opportunity in a whole lot of sports. I think when you look at golf in our county, tennis in our county – just a few years ago, I think four of the top eight teams left in the quarterfinals in boys tennis were Forsyth County schools, and a Forsyth County school went on to win the state championship. We’ve had three out of four in others. So, having said that, because we compete in such a tough region, I can’t say that anybody should be totally surprised by it. We knew. Coach [Chere] Thomas especially knew she had a special group of young men there this season.”
FCN: Sticking with spring, girls lacrosse reached the playoffs this season for the first time since 2011-12. What was the key to their success?
Gravitt: “I believe the year before last we saw some of those young players to fill roles. When that happens and you get to see a team that’s missed the playoffs for a little while – and sometimes it’s just bad luck. It can be an injury, people move somewhere, and there’s so many different things that can happen with that. Obviously, as well, your region gets cut up all the time. All of those different things I think play a part in that, but regardless, you’ve got to step up and compete year after year. I started seeing that the year before, and we were just a goal and about 45 seconds away from being the three seed instead of the four seed and going over to Mill Creek – and I think we might have had a chance to advance in the state playoffs.”
FCN: I thought one of neatest things for South Forsyth this past year was seeing the Jacksonville Jaguars select Jalen Camp in the NFL draft, then Landon Sims pitch Mississippi State to a national title. How exciting was it for you to track the success of those two?
Gravitt: “I’ll tell you what was so exciting about both of them for me. Seeing on social media so many of our coaches, the parents, and our community and the teachers at our school congratulating them on social media and saying what great young men they were. They were saying, ‘I’m not surprised that they’re successful in what they do because of what they did when they were at this high school, and how they behaved, and how they carried themselves, and the expectations they had for themselves. To reuse a word here, that was the most fulfilling part of seeing what their accomplishments were about to the people here.”
“NFL coaches, they do their work. They’re checking down to high school and coach [Jeff Arnette] was telling me, he said, ‘I just believe he’s going to get drafted. He’s not doing to be a free agent. I think he’s going to get drafted.’ I’m just so excited for him. I stay in touch with him and I’ve seen him a couple of times here on campus in the spring – just to see the smile on his face. I’m thankful that we have coaches here that set the right example for those ballplayers to go do the work to accomplish their goals and fulfil dreams they have. I just look forward to seeing them and more in the future.”
FCN: And now South has another basketball player in the ACC in Devin McGlockton.
Gravitt: “That’s pretty big stuff. Again, going back to what we were talking about with girls lacrosse and seeing a program turn around. Our boys program and where they’d been, it had been since 1998 that they had won a region title. You have players like [McGlockton] come into your program and it starts raising everybody else’s expectation and what they want to be and what they want to do. I thought you saw the culmination of that in the boys basketball team this year, and that group of young men and special group of seniors accomplishing what they did. It was just unfortunate – it goes back to four seeds. They weren’t playing a four seed. I think there were some ties in that other region. We had an awesome, awesome season there. I look forward to Devin doing big things at Boston College.”
FCN: As the head coach of the girls basketball team, did you see that group take another step this year? It seems like many of them are the same age, so do you see them progress at the same rate?
Gravitt: “You know, I may have a different view there as an athletic director might when you ask me about the girls basketball program, because I’m blessed to get to be the coach of that program. We have a great set of young ladies there. They were sophomores and we had a very understanding group of knowing their roles with the seniors this past year. You have those pieces come together, and we took another step and got to the region championship and had an awesome game – you know, a couple of buckets here and there. Then we have a super exciting first-round overtime win at home. It gets you so excited, and we played our butts off in the first half against Collins Hill. We were leading going into the last three seconds of the first half and one of their stars hits a long-distance 3 at the buzzer to go up one at the half. You see what the potential is. Our thing is to build on that.”
FCN: Another girls program that had some postseason success was girls flag football reaching the Final Four. What did you think of their GHSA debut?
Gravitt: “West had to go through South Forsyth to get that championship. How many times are we talking about Forsyth County schools playing each other deep in the state playoffs here? I was there at the Mercedes-Benz Home Depot Backyard during that Final Four games. It was, unfortunately for me, the first playoff game I got to go see. I had been at some of the regular-season games and everything. What I noticed with them is, they got better every single game. They started figuring it out. The girls got excited about it, and not just ours. Everybody’s girls were excited about flag football. The parents got into it, and that’s what makes it great. That’s what high school athletics is about. It was just so fun to see that program so early in the stages as a Georgia high school sport officially to do so well and go so far. Again, Coach [Cassie] Smith, and Coach [Leanne] Brooks is an assistant, and Dustin [Morris] who is one of our assistants over at Daves Creek Elementary, they just kept putting the pieces together and made it a positive, fun experience, which keeps them going.”
“The thing we’re going to see there now is that it’s going to get more competitive. It’s not just going to be a fun thing to do in between seasons. They’re going to want to go further and do more. That’s how that sport’s going to grow. I think this year we’ll probably see a lot more schools throughout the state playing flag football because of how exciting that Final Four and state championship were. That’s my belief just looking at it. I think – and I’ve told our other athletic directors and our county athletic director, Nathan Turner – I believe Forsyth County has a chance with flag football to do something that they’ve done with competitive cheer and be a leader in a sport throughout the state, because we’ve established ourselves there.”
FCN: I believe Chris Nelson is the first Forsyth County athlete to win a state championship in a sprinting event, right?
Gravitt: “I’m almost positive. The first one I can think of from Forsyth County Schools – I can’t speak for the private schools in their classifications. I’m pretty sure that Chris is the first one to win a sprinting state championship in Forsyth County history. The thing about it was, he had a great opportunity to win a state championship in the 100, too. Going into the state championships, we said, ‘If Chris finishes here, and if we get a good finish here, and if we pick up a few points,’ the way the state championship works, if you get a couple state championships and a few points, you’re in line to possible compete for a [team] state championship.”
“Coach [Austin] Hamilton motivates those kids and gets them fired up. He’s done a great job as our head track coach, and I’m so proud of him and what he’s creating. For the longest time, a lot of people just thought of South Forsyth High School as, ‘Well, we’re going to have some kids come out there and do well in the 3200 and maybe in the long-distance relay or something.’ From time to time, we’d have a thrower do well in shot put or discus, but to go out there and do what he did, and the team do what they did, that blew my mind a little bit.”
“I’ve always said this: I think track is the barometer for the level of athleticism that you have in your school. When you see your track team starting to do something special, there’s a real chance that other programs in your school are going to do things as well. I think that’s part of what this part season was at South Forsyth High School.”
FCN: One of the biggest pieces of news came when Jeff Arnette stepped down as head football coach after a long tenure at South Forsyth. So, what’s the reception been to Troy Morris, and where’s the energy level coming into the fall?
Gravitt: “Very excited. The kids have been fired up and just worked extremely hard. There’s just no change in the level of work ethic. Coach Arnette came here and convinced Coach Morris to come 11 years ago when he first got to South, and that work ethic is something that just hasn’t changed. They’ve been so fired up. I was walking through the weight room the other day and it was just so loud I couldn’t hardly hear myself. Then as spring football got going and the summer workouts and 7-on-7s, I’m excited about where they are with that. I believe they won one of their 7-on-7 tournaments that they went to and were leading against who became the champion at the Corky Kell when it got rained out. They’ve had a great summer.”
FCN: Obviously, you can’t speak for Forsyth Central, but I did find it interesting that both schools replaced a longtime football coach with an inside hire. Was that always the plan for South?
Gravitt: “We did interview outside hires, and I think they were very quality candidates. I do think in reference to hiring internally, this is something that I learned probably 10 years ago or maybe 12 years ago, we need to be hiring our next head coach when head coaches are hiring assistants. I don’t feel like it’s the athletic director’s responsibility to hire assistant coaches, but to make sure our head coaches know they’re hiring quality candidates as an athletic director, and more importantly, as a principal. The principal hires teachers first. [South Forsyth principal] Miss [Laura] Wilson will tell you that first and foremost, when we’re hiring coaches, she’s looking for great teachers. We know that great teachers will be great coaches. Great coaches should be great teachers. In every sport, we would hope that our next head coach is on staff if things are working well. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t times where there just needs to be a change, or that there aren’t a lot of other things that go into what happens when there’s a coaching change, but I would say that when Coach Arnette brought Coach Morris onto the staff, that he felt that he could be the next head coach here if anything ever happened.”
FCN: What would you say is the greatest challenge facing South Forsyth?
Gravitt: “Sometimes when you think you’re to a certain level, you’re there and you think you’re just going to win. South has – as we said to start with – had those challenges and continued to work through them. Sometimes people will say, ‘Hey, coach, are you jealous of this school,’ or, ‘Do you have any envy for what they’re accomplishing,’ and I’m like, ‘No, it’s Forsyth County.’ I think any principal that I’ve worked with will tell you that I told them that my first loyalty is to this school system. It educated me, it provided me a job and for going on 27 years, I’ve been able to do what I love in my hometown. Nothing can replace that.”
“I think complacency is what becomes the biggest challenge. It would be easy to say, ‘Well, South always comes back and gets to the top,’ whether it’s in academics, when you drive in and you see where we’ve been in the nation as a school in academics here. You go in the arena and you see we’ve been fortunate to win some state championships and a lot of region championships. Yeah, there have been some droughts, but I believe there’s cycles to those things. We’ve been able to weather those cycles, and our coaches have, and our community has just stuck in there and supported South Forsyth High School, and our principals have been very supportive of athletics. That’s not the case everywhere in the state. It takes the combination of all of those things to do what South Forsyth has been able to accomplish. You can’t get complacent – and that’s something I’m going to talk to my head coaches about when we have our pre-planning meeting. As a coaching staff, don’t let ourselves get complacent.”
FCN: South is another Forsyth County school that had a very successful spring season. Did that help offset any of the losses the athletic department might have suffered in fall and winter because of COVID-19 protocols such as reduced attendance?
Gravitt: “What last year did – and I’ll put it like this – makes me very concerned as I watch numbers for this year, if we have restrictions hit us the way they did. You have a little bit of a cushion built up, but last year drained that cushion when you have what happened to the fall and to some extend the winter. In particular, the fall; and let’s not kid ourselves, in particular, football. That’s your primary revenue-providing source for high school athletics. What you hope for is that all the other sports pay for themselves as you go through the seasons, and hopefully, you’ll be able to do something extra. I’m not just speaking from the school side. Without our booster clubs, without them, we couldn’t even exist. They have had to saddle a heavy burden financially every year to get a 7A program in our different sports to do the number of things they do, whether they travel off to tournaments or have charter buses. It’s a big undertaking. On the school side, if you can pay for all your other sports with the gates or come out in the black at all, you’re very fortunate. Do deep state playoff runs assist with that? It does, but I think Coach [Drew] Ferrer already pointed to that state championships lead to a lot of expenses, and that’s a good thing to have. We want to find ways to celebrate those successes.”
“Now, let’s talk about the ways that GHSA and the National Federation of High Schools worked to help us with that. We got a free camera in our gym that the National Federation of High Schools paid for to help broadcast games to people could see them. I think a number of our schools did. Just like everything, you’re looking at alternative ways to reach your fanbase and generate revenue. There’s just quite a bit of difference between somebody buying a subscription and whatever you get from that, in comparison to people at the game and the excitement that you get from that and the revenue that’s generated.”
“I’d like to say, yes, our deep runs paid for everything that we lost last year, but that wasn’t the case. The best part of it was the great seasons they had. It wasn’t the financial part by any stretch of the imagination.”
FCN: It can be hard to hit every single program. Is there anything you feel we missed or anything you’d like to mention?
Gravitt: “The cheerleading squad. If you can get to state, you feel like you’ve got a chance in our county and our region, and it’s been that way for a long time. As our schools have grown and you see all the schools continue to get better at the highest level, I’m so proud of those young ladies because they were a point away or less than a point away in some years gone by. Extremely proud of that coaching staff and those young ladies. They work hard. People don’t understand sometimes how much time cheerleading puts in, but last year was extraordinary.”
“Then there’s the region championship our softball team won. What a great season that they had. They were just right there. They lose to North Gwinnett, who was ranked No. 1 or 2 in the state when we played them here at home as the No. 1 seed. Again, you’re playing a team that has no business being a No. 2 seed in that situation. We’re a top-five team in the state, and sometimes it’s just who you get paired up with.”
“The girls cross country team as a whole came in third in the state. Returning Carmel Yonas and [Isabel Yonas] to the team, and some other runners. A good deal of our boys team is returning after finishing in the top 10 of the state.”
“Boys lacrosse had a historic season. What a great match during the season against Lambert. The spectator intensity during that was awesome. You know, we have never beaten Lambert. I don’t know if a county team has ever beaten Lambert, I don’t believe, and we were within a goal.”
“I think we take for granted our tennis teams, who both win their first-round matches in state as well. The spring is a fun time, but it doesn’t just happen in the spring. It’s all year long.”