Shortly before the 2012 season began, West Forsyth head football coach Frank Hepler acknowledged that expectations for his team had changed.
As the Wolverines entered their fifth varsity season on the heels of a run to the Class 5A state quarterfinals in 2011, they could no longer be considered a fledgling group focused on the growth process.
"We’re not so much a young program anymore, but a program that wants to be at the top each year," Hepler said.
If the No. 7-ranked Wolverines win tonight, the top is exactly where they will finish the regular season.
The two newest high schools in Forsyth County meet for the first time tonight at Lambert, where the Wolverines (8-1, 6-1 Region 6-AAAAAA) can clinch the Region 6-AAAAAA title with a victory over the Longhorns (5-4, 2-4).
It’s been 11 years since a Forsyth County football team clinched a region championship in the Georgia High School Association, and no local squad has ever done it above Class AAA.
The Wolverines can change all of that tonight by earning their first region title, but according to Hepler, they are more focused on what one more victory would do for their postseason path than on clinching their first trophy.
"It’s funny, [our mindset] hasn’t really been about, ‘Let’s go win the region championship this week,’ [securing] the highest [playoff] seed is the way we’re looking at it," Hepler said.
"We haven’t really talked so much about region championship as much as ... this is important because of what’s down the road."
Any other year, Lambert likely would be sharing West’s mental approach, but not this time.
Five weeks into the 2012 season, the possibility of West and Lambert playing for the region title in Week 10 seemed to have legs.
After reaching the Class 4A state playoffs in each of its first two seasons, Lambert began the year 5-0 and appeared headed for its third straight postseason appearance.
Instead, a Longhorns squad that had never lost back-to-back games has dropped four in a row, with last week’s 48-14 loss to Chattahoochee erasing any hopes the team still had of earning an 11th game.
Injuries have complicated the Longhorns’ problems, as quarterback Brock Maxwell did not take the field last week after playing for more than a month with a broken wrist.
"We’ve got about nine starters that are out, so that allows other people to play," Lambert coach Sid Maxwell said. "It’s just one of those things that happens sometimes from year to year and we’ve just got to find a way to put a team on the field to be productive.
"... We’re into our fourth year and have been very fortunate to have had two great years. We’ve also gone up two [classifications] and there’s going to be a learning curve.
"Now that [our guys] have been [in Class 6A], they know what they’ve got to do to get better. I think they’ll have more intensity next year after they’ve seen who they’ve lined up against, after a reality check."
Lambert enters tonight’s game a 22-point underdog in the Maxwell Projections. West’s offense has averaged 42 points per game this season, exactly double that of the Longhorns (21 ppg).
The Wolverines are coming off a 56-14 victory against South Forsyth in their final home game of the regular season. West senior quarterback A.J. Erdely passed for a career-high 408 yards in that game, while senior wingback Jake Wieczorek totaled a career-high 366 yards of offense on only 16 touches.
"They’re senior-laden and do a great job coaching," Maxwell said. "They’re just very balanced.
"You can’t find a way to cheat on them because they do so many things well with their talent. You have to play as sound football as you can and prevent the big play."
West is tied with Johns Creek (8-1, 6-1) and Alpharetta (6-3, 6-1) in the region standings and holds the tiebreaker over both, but because those two squads close out the season against each other tonight, an upset win by the Longhorns would cost West the region title.
Maxwell, however, said playing the role of spoiler is not the incentive for his team.
"I think the biggest thing is we’ve got a lot of young kids coming back and they want to be on the stage to show us who they are," Maxwell said. "It’s a job interview for next year. Probably one of the biggest [motivations] is trying to play hard for our seniors, who [our underclassmen] have a lot of respect for."
The first meeting between West and Lambert on the varsity gridiron could be the beginning of a strong new rivalry.
One team will walk away from tonight’s game with the WolverHorn Trophy, a piece of hardware that the teams will play for each year similar to the Leatherhead Trophy in the West-North rivalry series.
In all likelihood, the two schools will compete against one another in the same region for years to come. If the early successes of each program are any indication, the WolverHorn may not always be the only trophy on the line.
It won’t be tonight.
"Anytime you’re playing a program that’s been successful you want to play well against them," Hepler said. "They’ve obviously been successful these first few years and we have also. I think that alone lends itself to becoming a good matchup."