Before this school year, the last time a South Forsyth High School athletic team had won a state championship was 2003. Lately, though, the War Eagles had been coming closer – painfully close.
Two school years ago, the girls cross country team finished runner-up at the state meet. Last season, three South teams were second-best in the state: girls cross country, volleyball and competition cheer.
“You itch to make that last step,” South athletic director and girls basketball coach Keith Gravitt said after last school year.
South ended that drought early this past school year.
The girls cross country team took the final step, for its own program and South, winning the Class 7A state championship in November under first-year head coach Nick Wansley.
South Forsyth year in review
Region titles: 4
Team state titles: 1
Individual state titles: 0
Director’s Cup finish: Sixth in Class 7A (third in girls, 13th in boys)
Best boys state finish: Third, boys golf
Best girls state finish: First, girls cross country
College signees: 35
Athletic participation: 969 (597 boys, 372 girls)
They may have even had company if not for some controversy in the spring when South’s girls soccer team lost, 1-0, in the state semifinals to Grayson, a team that eventually had to forfeit all its victories up to and including the state semifinals for playing an ineligible player.
According to the Gwinnett Daily Post, the team and the Georgia High School Association knew of the situation prior to Grayson facing Lambert in the state championship. What if South had replaced Grayson in the state finals to face its rival in a third meeting?
“Everybody knows they should've been in the state championship,” Gravitt said. “There should've been a third game (with Lambert). I think it would've been one of the biggest gates in Georgia high school soccer state championship history if we had gotten to play each other.”
But many other sports took major steps at South too.
The boys golf team placed third at the state championship, while the girls placed fourth. The wrestling team, under first-year head coach Josh Stephens, reached the GHSA Team Duals for the first time in 13 years. Boys tennis advanced to the state quarterfinals, while boys lacrosse made its first state playoff appearance ever.
With other strong seasons from volleyball, cheerleading, softball, boys cross country, girls swimming, boys soccer, boys and girls basketball and boys and girls track and field, South finished a program-best sixth in the Regions Director’s Cup.
FCN: What do you remember the most from the girls cross country team’s state championship?
Gravitt: “What sticks with me the most was the expression on a first-year head coach's face, Coach Wansley. As I walked up to him to congratulate him, it's indescribable to what I saw. It was almost astonishment, but he was being flood, I could tell, with what had just happened.
“I think I said, ‘Coach, this doesn't happen all the time. This is kind of like a fairy tale season.’ Something along those lines. But the other part of it, I was so happy that (former head coach Van) Munn is still part of our coaching staff, because he did so much and came so close, two years in a row.
“It was gratifying and exciting on so many levels, not just for our school but our county, our region and for a coach, and I think too that set of girls. That was their goal. It wasn't anything short of that. To see them up on that podium, that was good stuff.”
FCN: You had some other teams really take big steps forward this season.
Gravitt: “Wrestling was exciting. Took a big step. Kids were committed. I think they'll even be better next year. So happy for Coach Stephens. He said, ‘I'm not here to just win region championships, coach, we want to be successful.’ And I believed him. You could tell by the way he said it. He believes it, and I believed him.
“Boys lacrosse. First time ever in the state tournament. That was big, and to see what they accomplished overall. It wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility we very likely had one of the top 15, 12 teams in the state, it's just that because our region is so competitive, you wind up where you do (in the state playoffs) and you have to go play Centennial, who give Lambert all they can handle in the semis, I believe. We just happened to match up against a really, really high-level team.
“Probably boys soccer surprised me the most. Our boys hadn't been to the state tournament in a year and two. They made it this year. They lose to Meadowcreek with two minutes and something left in the first round, and Meadowcreek was the state champion. So you're 1-0 with that team. That was a surprise to me.
“Golf. Awesome finishes (at the state tournament) by both of those teams. Great kids. Both of those teams have some of their major golfers coming back next year. And following middle school golf, I think golf is a sport that our county is going to continue to excel in.”
FCN: The girls soccer team had a fantastic season, although it ended in some controversy, losing in the state semifinals to a Grayson team that eventually forfeited all its victories from the season, and it seemed both the school and the Georgia High School Association knew prior to the state championship game against Lambert. How did everyone at South process that situation?
Gravitt: “There are still a lot of emotions attached to that whole situation. When I got the email, I was in a meeting. Just got up for a second to go look at my computer and saw an email we received. GHSA never spoke to us one time about the situation. We got a one sentence email telling us that Grayson was forfeiting their season.
“My first phone call was to (girls soccer) Coach (Tom) Braun to share with him what I had just found out. I said I don't know what it means at this point. My next phone call was from (Lambert athletic director) Drew Ferrer, because he received the same email.
“Here were the things I knew. The GHSA has never replayed a state championship game. So I knew that wasn't happening. In addition, when something had been vacated, they've never moved somebody up, so we were not going to get the state runner-up identification.
“There are changes that have happened in the GHSA, and I think this was just another one of the unfortunate situations that have led to where maybe change was needed. There's a lot of work going on with transfers. The hard thing for us to swallow there is Grayson and the GHSA knew before the state championship that Grayson had played an ineligible player. The ineligible player was going to create a situation where they were going to have to forfeit every game. So what you're telling me is that the GHSA allowed a state championship game to be played and already knew what the end result (for Grayson) was going to be?
“What we have to focus on for me is, what's the biggest disappointment? The kids. The kids. And that's where the GHSA lost sight of the right thing to do. They quit thinking about the kids. It's supposed to be about the kids. That's where the deepest hurt for our school was, was for those young ladies. But what a great year they had. They made it to the state semifinals. Fun team, fun group. Dynamic players on that soccer team.”
FCN: Your football team was the first from Forsyth County to ever play in the Corky Kell Classic. What has that experience been like?
Gravitt: “That's one of the things that kicks off our whole school year, not just football. The first time ever we didn't get as many people as we thought we could get, but the Corky Kell administration thought we did a great job, they were really happy with the crowd we brought. We want to get better at it, and that's something that we've been thinking about.”
FCN: After this upcoming school year, Denmark High School will open. How do you expect that to impact South Forsyth athletics?
Gravitt: “We're going to go through a transition that no other school in our county has had to go through exactly the way we have. Having schools created out of you is different, and that's happened with us and West, with us and Lambert, and it's fixing to happen again with us and Denmark.
“You're thinking about overall athletic cost. Let's take football for example. How many of hundreds of thousands of dollars is spent on football at a school? There's a point of diminishing return as you increase those (participation) numbers. I'm thinking about those things, because the coaches are saying, We need this, and we need this. So, I'm trying to think, OK, what do we truly need and challenging a coach when they ask me for some of those budgetary. In two years, when our numbers start getting lower, back around 2,700-2,800 kids, are you really going to need what you need with 3,500 kids?
“(Football) Coach (Jeff) Arnette had to cut for the first time ever in his whole career this year. Toughest thing I've ever seen a coach at our school go through. When you have to do it that first time you've been coaching as long as he has, and never thought that football of all things would come to where you've got to consider have tryouts – still probably have 180 players on your team, but I think there's probably 220 out at the spring at one point – No. 1, we don't have the facilities for that, and No. 2, you've got to consider the equipment cost for that.”
FCN: Any other issues on your radar?
Gravitt: “I was looking at our participation numbers. As I was looking at ours, I think we have 80 less girls competing than we do boys, which is not too bad. My question is our overall numbers. We've got a big school. One of my things is how we can increase athletic participation.
“We have huge academic participation. All the clubs – DECA, Habitat For Humanity, the Vex Robotics team – continue to grow, grow, grow. And our performing arts are awesome too – literary and one-act play. So, all of those continue to grow, and they should. When you're getting as large as we are right now, they should be.
“I want to find new ways to get more kids involved in our athletic program. I do see some sports, the newer sports, seem to be growing – lacrosse and volleyball. Growing and getting more of our students in athletics, that's one question I have that I want to answer.”