As West Forysth’s football team kneeled on the torn-up grass field on Friday night, there was no shortage of teary eyes or embraces between teammates that had played their final high school game.
But with the mood as somber as it was, head coach Shawn Cahill looked at his team and saw something less discouraging: a group that was left for dead just five weeks ago that became Forsyth County’s last standing representative in the 2018 playoffs. When he looked at his seniors, all he could think about were fond memories.
“I’ve gotten so close to these kids in the last two years, and they’re great kids,” Cahill said. “They’ve been over at my house, my kids know them. They’re all your own — it’s like graduation. They’re going somewhere else. You don’t want them to go out on a night like this.”
To Cahill, his Wolverines had set a standard for Forsyth football, and he let his players know it. But West could not match up against Class 7A’s gold standard in its second round playoff matchup, falling 41-7 to defending state champion North Gwinnett.
“I was proud of them the whole year,” Cahill said. “With who I decided to make them play, to injuries, I’m proud of them. (North Gwinnett), they’re the defending state champs. That’s the standard that you want to get to.”
North Gwinnett didn’t take long to demonstrate its offensive prowess. During the game’s opening drive, moving to West’s 18 after a long run by Bulldog quarterback J.R. Martin. A few plays later, Martin found Josh Downs in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown, putting North Gwinnett up 7-0 with 10:13 left in the opening quarter.
After a three-and-out on the Wolverines’ first drive, the Bulldogs struck again, with Downs taking another Martin pass and following a convoy of blockers for a 27-yard score. At the end of the first quarter, North Gwinnett led West 14-0, and the Wolverines were looking for any positive they could get.
“They came out and they took it right to us,” Cahill said. “They’re clicking on all cylinders right now. They didn’t have 22 seniors starting last year. A lot of those kids played in that state championship game and they showed it tonight.”
With 10:11 left until the half, West got their only real break of the night, with Jake Huggins dislodging the ball from Martin’s hands. Mikhari Sibblis did the rest, picking up the loose ball and scoring to cut the Bulldog lead to 14-7.
“I was thinking we had a chance,” Sibblis said. “When I picked up that fumble, I knew I was going to score. I had to.”
While momentum briefly appeared to be shifting West’s way from that point, the Bulldogs didn’t let that sense of hope hang around for long. After stopping the Bulldog offense for the first time, West got its first first down of the game, only to have the drive stall due to an intentional grounding call that sent the Wolverines back to their own 4.
After receiving the ensuing punt, North Gwinnett’s Javonni Cunningham gave the Bulldogs their cushion back with 3:36 left in the first half, making a move on a host of West defenders and finding a hole for a 37-yard score.
The game was still in reach for West after that, but with under a minute before the break, a 14-yard punt from the Wolverines gave the Bulldogs another prime chance to score, which they took with a 13-yard run from Tyler Goodson with 26 seconds left. At halftime, the Wolverines trailed 28-7.
“I think we kind of maybe in the beginning let the field conditions get in our heads,” Cahill said. “We were running up and were in position and the kids were a little worried about slipping rather than making tackles. Their kids would run by us — they have a lot of speed.”
Things didn’t get any better for the Wolverines in the second half, with Goodson and Devin Crosby both scoring for North Gwinnett in the third. A running clock was in effect for the fourth.
“We prepared for them like we always prepared for teams,” Sibblis said. “ I thought we were going to come out and get this win.”
Despite the loss, Cahill is excited for where his program is going. Like his team did at the beginning of the year, he hopes they learn from the experience.
“I think we were a little bit in awe, coming over here and playing,” Cahill said. “Not that it was North Gwinnett, but it was the defending state champs. The kids kind of looked at that a little bit.
“I’m glad we got to play it because that’s where we want to get to, eventually.”