West Forsyth’s fifth-year football program made a historic leap forward in 2011, earning its first two playoff victories and finishing the season ranked seventh in Georgia’s largest classification.
The Wolverines bring back the bulk of an offensive unit that averaged 29 points per game, but coach Frank Hepler knows success doesn’t always carry over from one year to another.
West (11-2) has several holes to fill on defense as it moves to a larger and arguably more challenging region in the fall, and Hepler spent part of the team’s two-week spring practice session in May reminding his players how much work it took to reach the Class 5A quarterfinals last year.
"We were close [to the top], but we know how hard it was to get there," Hepler said.
"There are no guarantees in life. Just because we were there last year [doesn’t mean] that we’re going to be there this year.
"It’s going to take a lot of hard work to try to even get back to the playoffs."
West, along with county rivals Lambert, South Forsyth and North Forsyth, will compete in the newly created Region 6-AAAAAA this fall, establishing multiple new local rivalries in the process. Though much of the Wolverines’ current roster has competed against Lambert and South on the freshman and junior varsity squads, North is the only Forsyth County team the Wolverines have ever played in varsity competition.
The new region also includes Region 6-AAAAA champion Alpharetta, Region 7-AAAA champion Chattahoochee and runner-up Johns Creek — three teams which posted a combined 28-6 record last year.
"It’s going to be a really tough region, and we’re going to have our hands full," Hepler said. "We’re excited about playing [more] Forsyth County schools."
West’s defense held opponents to just 15 points per game last season but must replace key contributors like free safety Trevor Guthrie, the All-County Defensive Player of the Year, defensive tackle Drew Robbins and linebacker Wes Rood.
Hepler said that either Hunter Belue or Josh Gordon, who split time at strong safety last year, will likely slide into Guthrie’s spot. Sophomore Ryan Guthrie, Trevor Guthrie’s younger brother, will also get a chance to fill his sibling’s former role.
"He plays the same safety position," Hepler said of Ryan Guthrie. "He’s got a lot of the same abilities as Trevor and he’s going to be a good one himself."
Rising seniors Mohamed Camara and Conner Vandenbos will return at linebacker, where they combined for 196 tackles in 2011.
Other defensive spots, including cornerback, won’t come into focus until the fall.
"We were anxious to see the [number] one cornerback spot [during spring]," Hepler said. "I’m still not sure who’s going to start there, but we’ve got some great competition."
The offense will again be led by rising senior quarterback A.J. Erdely, who passed for almost 2,000 yards in a breakout junior season. The majority of the offensive line also returns, along with rising senior wingback Jake Wieczorek, last year’s All-County Offensive Player of the Year.
Hepler said the continuity on the offensive side of the ball allowed the coaching staff to simply try to build upon what worked last season.
"Offensively it was just more of seeing where they’re at and what improvements they’ve made," Hepler said.
"We worked hard during the spring to bring some new formations in and some new plays. It’s hard to see [how much you’ve improved against your own players], but what we put in during the spring, we thought we made some improvements and we’re excited about the passing game."
The most noticable change on offense will come in the running game between the tackles.
The Wolverines must replace two-year starter Blake Roberts, who ran for more than 1,100 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
Hepler said Camara, Trevor O’Bryant, Gabe Pierce and Brian Porter will all get carries, and that Porter in particular could surprise people.
"I think our running game could be as good or better because of those guys," Hepler said.
"Brian will end up with probably close to 1,000 all-purpose yards and people will say, ‘Where’d this kid come from?’"
Hepler said most of all, the Wolverines want to maintain a balanced approach on offense, keeping the points — and the fun — in steady supply.
"Three or four years ago we had to rely so heavily on the run," he said. "Now, to have the passing game and the running game there together, the kids are really having some fun in our offense."