The indelible image of West Forsyth’s athletic year must be from football season when the dust exploded up from the Wolverines’ student section in a Lebron James-like cloud with kids delirious.
From the very start of the school year, the Gulo Gang, West’s name for its student section, was in strong form.
“I would say that school spirit-wise it was the probably the best year we’ve ever had,” West athletic director Brett Phipps said.
And the Gulo Gang had plenty to cheer for this season, from the volleyball team’s historic start, cross country’s emergence, girls basketball’s continued success, boys' golf's unprecedented season and baseball’s wild ride to a region championship.
Forsyth County News sports editor Brian Paglia talked with Phipps about how West injected some extra spirit into students this season, what it learned from baseball’s crazy end of the season and how nearby “deforestation” could affect athletics in the future:
What athletic accomplishments stood out to you this season?
“Really proud of cross country. I knew coming in it was going to be a good season, but the boys winning region and the girls getting fourth in the state, just really proud of them. Super excited for them this year because on the girls side the whole team is back, and we’ve picked up a couple runners who are going to be huge. That was a big highlight of the fall.”
How did you feel football coach Adam Clack did in his first year in charge?
“We’re doing great. Every year you want to get better, and every year you want to see the program take a step forward and not backwards. He came in kind of late. He took the job the day before spring practice started. At that point you’re sort of locked in to whatever your summer plans were. You just are. Injuries were unbelievable. As a result, that was a disappointment, but even through the season I thought things got better.
“I look at what he’s done in the offseason. Our incoming freshmen class, across the board – talk to any coach in the program, and they’ll tell you the incoming freshmen class is the strongest we’ve seen come in, particularly in football. So he’s had those kids in the weight room three days a week in the morning. We’ve got a bus running them back to Liberty and Vickery. He’s got them in there getting stronger.
“Came through spring practice, which was outstanding. We’ve been able to add some additions to the coaching staff. That tells me we’re not going backwards. Adam is working his tail off, as all of the coaches are. When you lose as much as we lost, people probably have notions that we’re going to take a step back. I’ll be shocked if we do. I really will. Of course with teenagers you never know what you’re going to get. But based on everything so far, I think they will.”
Volleyball also seemed to take a big step forward.
“And most of that team is back. [Head coach] Jake [Dickey] is real excited about them. He’s got a couple incoming freshmen girls who he hopes can contribute down the road. He’s stressed pretty thin with basketball and volleyball right now. I think he put a cot up in the coaches’ office.
“But we were expecting that to a certain degree. Anytime you get a coach to come back for his second or third year, just like with Clack, now that you’ve got your system in place, people know you, it should get better. Jake works really, really hard.”
And then going into the winter.
“Well, I was real excited about wrestling. The way we started, and to go out in the county tournament and felt we had North on the ropes and really thought we were going to beat them there for a while. And then for it to fall apart based on injuries.
“Just finishing up my 23rd in education, coached that entire time, I don’t recall as many injuries across the board. We had a rash of them in spring sports, but the ones we had were critical. Boys soccer got decimated.
“To have injuries to seniors or returning starters you expect to play a major role go down in disheartening. And we’ve got a great training staff here. I think one of the best in the state. But it still happens. You can’t put them in bubble wrap.
“But wrestling, and I’m really excited for them next year. The injuries are healed, and we’ve got some incoming freshmen I know coach [Steven] Stromie is excited about. I feel like they’re going to have a good year.
“Girls basketball obviously had a fantastic season. Semi-expected, I would think. You would expect given whole we had coming back to have had a season – I would hate to say disappointing, because I don’t think it was, but your hopes get up as you win more games that something special might happen. But moving into next season I think the expectations are very high.”
I suppose the craziest season was baseball.
“I know [head coach Mike] Pruitt’s been to state championships as a head coach. He’s done a lot of neat things in his career. But I think without question in the years he’s been here this was his best year coaching. A lot of people might look at all that talent and think, oh it should be easy. Sometimes that makes it harder. A lot harder. Luckily, you didn’t see any big egos out there, which was unique for that kind of talent level. They really did pull for each other.
And then there were some things Mike did that worked for those kids in the offseason. I thought his whole staff did a fantastic job. Of course the kids went out and played well. The whole region kind of got a shocker in the playoffs, but Region 5-AAAAAA was pretty stinking good obviously. If you had talked to me in February would I have thought we were going to have a region championship out of the deal? No, but I was glad to have it.”
Did the way the tiebreakers worked – or almost didn’t work – spark any changes?
“Yeah. They’re going to get together this fall and rework the language. Unfortunately there were two controversies in the region involving tiebreakers and both involved West. The football deal that kept us out of the playoffs because of the interpretation of the ruling, and then the baseball thing, which at the end of the day didn’t matter. But, the wording and whatever is in there, it just needs to be fixed.”
It seemed the school took a cool step forward in school spirit. What do you attribute that to?
“I’ve been here since the first day the school opened, and I would say that school spirit-wise it was probably the best year we’ve ever had. I think that goes to Mrs. Gordy and her leadership. She’s allowed the kids, coaches and people to do some things that really fed school spirit. And on top of that, we had a tremendous senior class this year. Just a bunch of great kids. Alec Wilson, Chris Cullen, Addison Albright, those three really rallied the kids year-round in football and basketball season. And I think that got paid back in the spring, because they’re all baseball guys; we had the biggest crowds we’ve ever had that I can remember at our baseball games.
“Our slogan (“Sweat Gold, Bleed Blue”) was just a little something to tie us all together as an athletic department. The idea behind it was to change maybe every year, but we got to Christmas and I started talking to my head coaches about changing it. We meet two or three times a semester. They didn’t want to change it. They went back to their players, and they didn’t want to change it. Cheerleading made up cheers around it. This kind of turned into something more than I ever thought. They all want to keep it so we’re going to keep it until everybody gets tired of it, I guess. But it kind of worked out.”
Take me back to girls basketball coach David May going to Collins Hill, then deciding to come back. I imagine that must have been a new experience.
“Yeah, I never experienced that before. Well, a couple things with that is, first, we never wanted him to leave in the first place. So when he came in and told me Collins Hill is talking to him, I wanted to support him in every way possible. I think that goes toward him and the way he handled it. I think he was genuinely torn up about the possibility of leaving. I got it.
“He started talking to them, decided that’s what he wanted to do. But his daughter’s coming back as senior. His son is a junior on the basketball team. Lives across the street. Collins Hill is a pretty good drive from here. Went over to do some two-on-ones and did some things with them and met some people; liked everybody he met. Came into me I guess a week or so before spring break – and he and I talked through this whole process – and said, you know Brett I really am starting to feel like I made a mistake. What would it take for me to come back?
“Well, at that point we had already accepted his resignation and gone before the Board. We kind of had to almost hire him again. I talked to Mrs. Gordy, and it was a long process. Took almost a month to get to the point where we were ready to announce.”
Had you already done interviews with other candidates?
“We were starting to narrow it down to two people. We were going to call them back. And then I went to her. She was like, well we never wanted him to leave in the first place. I said, exactly. So we just kind of put everything on hold. Went on spring break. That gave him some time. He had not signed anything legally binding with Gwinnett County yet. Heather and I didn’t feel like he had burned any bridges, because he was still coaching girls golf, so he was still very much involved in the community and school. Now, that I think back on that it almost feels like he never left. I almost forget that it even happened. It may have seemed herky-jerky from the public’s perception, from the inside it felt like a very easy transition back. Sometimes you get your pride in it. We didn’t do that with that. I’m kind of proud of all of us for doing that.”
Do your expectations for girls basketball change with coach May back?
“I think the girls are pretty excited. I think the parents are too. I think there was a pretty good buzz. Everybody felt like we didn’t really lose anything. They were all pretty pumped. We’ve got some kids who are going to come back out and play again. They make you deeper and make you better. It allows families to plan. There’s a comfort level there. There’s a lot of talent at Collins Hill. But when he starts talking about some of the talent coming up in the lower levels to us over the next couple of years, he gets a gleam in his eye too. We’re going to be OK. That’s all you can ask of any high school program. There’ll be highs and lows. Just stay as level as you can.
“And here’s a program we didn’t talk about. Super proud of [head boys golf coach Chris] Roy. What a great season he had. He loses [2015 FCN Boys Golfer of the Year] Robert [Shaw], but he’s excited because we’ve got some really strong freshmen and sophomores, and a couple eighth graders coming in that we feel like are going to be good. I don’t think we’re going to take much of a step back.
“Lambert [boys golf] had a special season, but we beat them for the county championship. And given where West golf was just three or four years ago? We had our first state qualifier three years ago, and we felt great about that. Now all of a sudden here we are.”
Well if this season was about the SWEAT GOLD BLEED BLUE and improving school spirit, what’s next for West athletics?
“We’re going to continue that, and we’re going to try to take to the next level. I just think we need to get better at doing that.
“But at the same time, I think everybody feels like we’re in a very transitional period here in the next three years. Look at all these new houses around here. We don’t know what that’s going to look like. We just know there are a lot of kids coming. The numbers show it. The trailers we keep adding show it. You’ve just got to figure that within that there are some kids coming – maybe they’ll be in the fifth or sixth grade now – but they’ll be ours in the next two or three years, and the next thing you know you’ve got a pretty good group of kids. Everybody feels like we’re almost waiting for the wave to hit, not just athletically but across the board. So I think there’s that.
“Now, there isn’t a school in Forsyth County that isn’t seeing an increase in enrollment. But I do think there’s probably more in the West area as far as housing. It seems like they’re tearing down every woods around this school right now and putting a house there. I was at South from 2001-07 when the school went from 1,600 to almost 3,000, but this to me feels even bigger than that. I may be wrong, but it feels like we’re about to move into a different era.”