Brett Phipps is still a bit tired.
It’s summer, yes, but this spring sports season was the longest and most exhausting one he had been a part of as the Wolverines’ athletic director. However, with physical fatigue came emotional fulfillment: Phipps kept working because West kept winning, with teams competing up through the final Tuesday of the school year, when the Wolverines’ boys golf team won the Class 7A state title on May 21.
Region titles: 5
Team state titles: 2
Individual state titles: 1
Director's Cup finish: 6th in Class 7A (7th in boys, 6th in girls)
Best boys state finish: 1st in boys golf
Best girls state finish: 1st in gymnastics
Phipps had an idea that this was going to be a good year for West, given how many underclassmen and non-seniors the Wolverines fielded the previous school year. But for it to be this good – sixth place in the Director’s Cup standings, the school’s best-ever finish – was not anticipated.
“It probably exceeded expectations, if I’m being completely honest,” Phipps said. “That doesn’t mean I thought we weren’t going to do well, but it was outstanding, and it was fun to watch and just be a small part of.”
The Wolverines were still young this year, in multiple sports, but that didn’t preclude success. The girls lacrosse team started seven freshmen at times and still won an area title. The girls basketball team started three freshmen and finished with a winning record in region play. Jack Aikins, a sophomore, won the 50-yard freestyle at the state swim meet.
There’s plenty of talent left over from the successful teams the Wolverines fielded this year, and there isn’t much turnover in the coaching ranks, either: The two new head coaches for 2019-20, Taylor Sweeney with basketball cheer and Scott Englebert with girls golf, are former assistants for those teams simply rotating up to head coach.
“We could pick any sport on there,” Phipps said, pointing to his master sheet of the school’s coaches, “and talk about it, and I could talk about how good they are. I’ve never been able to do that.”
After a year of unprecedented success and more excitement on the way, Phipps made this clear: It’s a good time to be at West.
Editor’s note: Responses and questions have been edited for length and clarity.
FCN: What in particular was unexpected about the success the school had this year?
Phipps: … We hadn't won a boys state title before, so you always hope – you look on paper and you think if all the chips fall (where they may). Winning a state title is one of those things, you've got to have a lot of luck. You've got to get the right draw, you've got to get in the right spot, be healthy, and all those things have to come together. But I was really happy for (boys golf head coach) James (Hallewell) for what he was able to accomplish with the boys golf team. That was really special.
And then also knowing with girls gymnastics that Sienna (Schreiber) wasn't going to compete this year – we'd known all year she wasn't going to – it was a little bit of a toss-up as to how that was going to go. … And at the end of the day – I don't mean this in a bad way at all, I really don't – but you are dealing with teenagers. And I think sometimes everyone sometimes forgets: They're not college athletes, they're certainly not pro athletes, they're teenagers, and we had a lot of young teenagers, particularly this year, 14, 15, 16-year-old kids that contributed at a high level for us. One little thing goes wrong and it kind of rocks their whole world. They could flunk a test, or a boyfriend or girlfriend break up with them, or any of those kind of things are real-life scenarios, and all of a sudden they’re not competing in the way you expect them to compete.
But for this year, I thought all of the teams did a good job of putting aside distractions and being the best they could be, and it showed. It was just a really fun year.
FCN: The boys and girls track teams both winning region titles broke something of a stranglehold that South Forsyth and Lambert held in that meet among county teams. What do you think were the contributing factors there, and what was your reaction to that?
Phipps: … (Head boys track) coach (Bill) Ballard has got a long history of coaching track and football in the state of Georgia; he's one of those legendary guys we were lucky enough to hire. And I think he and (head football coach) coach (Shawn) Cahill talked a lot of our football kids into coming out, and I think on the boys side, that helped immensely. I think on the girls side, though, they were stacked and ready to go from the very beginning. We knew that. And so it was just a matter of everything falling into place. That's the first region title for track I've had since I've been AD. And you look at the teams as you begin the year and think you might have a shot here, you might have a shot there – I didn't think about track, to be honest, because I never have.
So it was a real pleasant surprise, and (I’m) super proud of all those coaches. And they worked really hard, they really did. I think that program is set up to make a run the next couple of years, at least as far as region titles go. And what's funny is we had the best track season in school history and we didn't have a state champion for the first time in like four years. Which maybe means we're just a better team, which is great too. But I do think there's some individuals out there that are a part of that program that will win some state titles down the road individually.
FCN: West and Lambert opened up just a few years apart (West in 2007 and Lambert in 2009), but while Lambert had huge success almost immediately, it took a bit longer for West to reach the level it’s currently at. Why do you think that’s been the case?
Phipps: I don't know. I think there's a couple things you can probably look at: First thing is, when this school opened, it was right in the midst of the economic downturn. People weren't buying houses and building them like they are now. In fact … this area over here has kind of blown up in the past two to three years, really. Whereas, I taught at South for 7 years … I knew all of those people at South that went to Lambert. South was really, really stinking good, so when Lambert opened, they had the advantage of taking a whole lot of that. We only took a quarter or a third of our kids came from South when we opened. The rest came from Central and North.
And so the success in this county has been more towards the south end because of the kind of spillover, if you will, of Fulton and Gwinnett people into Forsyth County. And I think that's just starting to happen over here. We kind of have this buffer on the backside of the county here up against the Milton farm country, if you will. There's not a whole lot of development in Cherokee County and north Fulton here behind us. So it's not like it's spilling over like it is in Suwanee and coming over from the north Gwinnett area, the Peachtree Ridge area, or the Chattahoochee area, like Lambert had, because they were building all of those houses down there then … I think it'd really be like comparing apples and oranges, because by the time Lambert opened, the economy was going again. And when that happened, people were building houses down there, (while) they weren't building them over here … It's just now starting to hit over here in a lot of ways. Certainly, (in) the last three to four years.
And (Lambert’s) numbers went up. Their population numbers went up immensely. They were smaller than us their first couple years, and then boom, all of a sudden they were a thousand kids bigger than us. And they're still bigger than us by quite a few … But we're looking at somewhere around, maybe 2600 kids here next fall, mid 2500, somewhere in there. You start looking at some of the bigger schools in the state of Georgia, which Lambert is one of those – I don't mean big in terms of size, but big in terms of success – the size is a little bit of a factor. If you take 1,000 more kids, you could be talking anywhere from five to 10 to 15 more athletes per sport to pick from. That had a big impact on how you are and how good you can be.
But I don't take anything away from Lambert's success. In fact, I was very proud of them. Of course, I've known Drew – he and I have worked together at South for years, and he's a good dude. I was glad for him, but I do kind of feel like we've turned a little bit of a corner. But part of it has to do with the population kind of changing over here too. Tearing down more woods and building more houses kind of helps you a little bit.