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STATE OF THE PROGRAM: West Forsyth enjoys most successful year in school history
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West Forsyth girls soccer players celebrate with the state championship trophy after beating Lambert in the Class 7A finals, 1-0. Photo by Lily McGregor Photography

The most successful school year in the history of West Forsyth High School began in the Corky Kell Classic and ended with the Wolverines’ girls soccer team lifting the Class 7A state championship trophy. 

Between those two events, West also captured the first-ever GHSA girls flag football state championship, reached the state championship in wrestling and girls lacrosse, won two playoff football games, produced two state champions on the wrestling mat, graduated a nationally recruited football player [Dylan Fairchild] and spawned one more [Oscar Delp]. 

Then, shortly after that state championship win by the Wolverines’ girls soccer team, recent West graduate Jack Aikins competed at the Olympic Trials in four separate events, narrowly missing out on a trip to Tokyo.

Aikins will get another try in a few short years. By then West athletic director Brett Phipps is hoping he’ll be able to look back at this school year and identify it as the start of a new era for the Wolverines.

FCN: Is this the most successful season in West’s history?

Region titles: 6 [Football, Wrestling, Boys Swim, Girls Lacrosse, Boys Track & Field, Girls Track & Field]

Team state titles: 2

Individual state titles: 8

Directors Cup finish: 3rd in Class 7A [3rd in girls, 5th in boys]

Best boys state finish: Second, Wrestling 

Best girls state finish: First, Girls Soccer and Girls Flag Football

College signees: 21

Phipps: “Without a doubt. Not even close. It’s the most successful, and we’ve had some good years. This is the best year in the history of the school, athletically. It’s strange that it happened this year of all years. I don’t know – maybe it was a blessing and a curse, to a certain degree. The blessing was that we had reduced crowds, and therefore, maybe some of the games weren’t as hyped and as big as they would have normally been and it took some of the pressure off.”

“The other thing that took some of the pressure off in some of the sports is, we didn’t know if we were going to get shut down any given day. A lot of each coach’s approach from the start of the season was, ‘Let’s just go out and gave fun. Let’s take it a game at a time and a practice at a time and just enjoy being with each other. We’ll just take what we get, and if we get through the season, we get through the season.’ I think that took some of the pressure off of it. The curse side of it was, we didn’t get as much attention as we might have gotten.”

“This next year will be my 11th year as AD. I’ve said in the same end-of-year meeting with the Forsyth County News every year what I’m about to say: You can have the greatest year in the history of your school, and because Lambert’s in your county, you get trumped by them every time. Nothing against Lambert at all. Congratulations to them; they had an amazing year. You’ve got to get over that hump if you’re ever going to get the attention within the county and maybe within the state that you’re hoping to get, because those guys down there are busting their tails too.”

FCN: Do you consider Lambert to be West’s primary rival, and has that changed throughout the years?

Phipps: “We’re in a little bit of a weird spot in the county as far as rivals. North and Central have been natural rivals for 20, 30 years, then Lambert and South have been rivals because all of Lambert was created out of South, and there are still enough families that were involved that it’s become a very natural thing. There’s Denmark down there, but they really came mostly out of South as well. To answer your question, Lambert to me – I don’t want to speak for the coaches, so I’ll speak from my perspective – they’ve obviously become the gold standard. Anytime you want to achieve something, you better compare yourself to the best around. When you look at wins and losses, Lambert obviously becomes the school that you look at. Do I look at them as a rival? No, I don’t think I do. Not in that sense. Certain sports, obviously, they were bigger rivals than in others, but it’s never been something within our coaching staff that we talk a lot about.”

FCN: I was sifting through all the ‘State of the Program’ interviews from previous years and I pulled a quote from you from six years ago when you were talking about the growth and development in the county, which read, ‘I may be wrong, but it feels like we’re about to move into a different era.’ Are we in that new era?

Phipps: “That era is here, and I don’t see it changing for a while. I don’t get to see a lot of incoming freshmen, except for freshmen football in the spring. I got to see the freshmen this year in spring football, and a lot of those kids play a lot of other sports – I already know a few kids that are playing basketball and wrestle and track. That’s one of the best-looking groups of freshmen football players I’ve seen us have, and I’ve been here for all of them. I’m not sure yet they’re the best group we’ve had, but athletically, they’re at the top two or three in terms of class. If we’re getting classes like that coming in, to just keep retooling every year with what we have already, things look good. The future is bright. We’ll have to wait and see, because you never know how things are going to play out. Obviously, coaching comes into that and luck is a big part of all of it. But, yes, I do think we’re in this new era.”

FCN: Well, speaking of coaching, one of the incoming coaches is Maci Fletcher, who will take over the softball program and played softball at West several years ago. What’s it like for you to see a former player step into that role?

Phipps: “It’s pretty neat. She’s going to do a great job. She’s already been doing a great job. She’s working her tail off. It was really neat for me, because Justin Rickett played football for me at South Forsyth High School. Then we got here and he got named head coach the same year I became AD. Then to replace him with Maci, just like when we hired Mason Waters last year as an assistant basketball coach; I had him at class here at West. Mostly, it just means I’m old, but it also means that when you have people who think so much of your school and your community that they want to come back, you can’t get any more buy in than that. When you look at the elite, powerhouse programs around the state in all classifications, when you look at the communities, whether you’re talking about a Brookwood or a Jefferson or a Carrolton or a Lowndes or whatever, inevitably there are people within those programs, if not the head coaches, who played at those schools. Their passion for that sport and their passion for that school is unlike any you could get if you hired people from other places – not that you can’t hire passionate people from other places, because I’m not from here either originally. But at the end of the day, that’s a big deal.”

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Photo by Mitchell Martin

FCN: Staying the fall season, football started its season in the Corky Kell last year. You’re going to do the same thing this year. You had a nationally recruited player last year in Dylan Fairchild who graduated, but you’ve got another one coming through the ranks in Oscar Delp. What has that sort of notoriety done for the football program?

Phipps: “A lot. I’ll be honest, I think we raised the profile of the name West Forsyth in the past 12 months more than we’ve raised it on a state level in the past 12 or 13 years. Our girls flag football going to the state championship and being on state-wide television raised the profile of the name immensely. Going back to boys football, any time you play in the Corky Kell, and you’re hosting at home, and you’re the only game on television on a Wednesday night, and everybody is so hungry for football, it doesn’t hurt you.”

“I will also say this: Dave Svehla has done a magnificent job of, one, pulling together an outstanding staff. Secondly, Dave has such a low-key, humble, blue collar, everyday-man mentality about himself that he doesn’t allow the kids to buy into all the hype. He keeps it focused every day, every game. I really think the kids buy into that and play off of that. They don’t get into reading their own headlines, they just focus on what they’ve got to do. The rest of the coaches buy into it. Of course, they’re like that as well – that’s why they work for him. They like that kind of calm demeanor. I just think that has a huge impact on how they approach the game, and I think that had a lot do with our success last year. I don’t know what this year holds, but I do think we have the parts and pieces and potential there to be pretty good. If that ends up being the case, I know Dave is going to keep them grounded.”

FCN: I’m glad you brought up flag football, because I saw were the Forsyth County parks and rec department is offering girls flag football this fall for the first time.

Phipps: “Yeah, we were a part of that. Nathan Turner and I contacted them and said we wanted to sit down. The way things are set up, depending on the sport – some sports have their own feeder programs that they run top down to the elementary level. I think of lacrosse, soccer, or whatever. Others are more dependent on rec, just because of the nature of that sport. Flag is one of those. We can’t reinvent the wheel every year. We’ve got to have kids coming in as freshmen who already understand the sport and understand the rules and have already worked on their skillset, whether it’s just catching the ball or running routes or whatever. We need those kids coming in already knowing how to do some things. I coached the first team three years ago and we literally started from scratch that year. Some of the girls had played in the backyard with their brothers or their neighbors, but for the most part, they’d never really played any real, organized football. So, we’re past that and we’re to the point where they understand the rules.”

“Did I think we’d win the state title? No. Did I think we had a shot to win the state title? Yeah, absolutely I did. Anytime you’ve got somebody like Haylee Dornan, you’ve got a shot to win anything you you’re playing. She’s one of the single-most competitive human beings I’ve ever been around in my life – not most talented, but most competitive. I thought we overachieved a tad, maybe, but at the end of the day you don’t have Haylee Dornans every year, so you’ve got to make sure you’re doing some stuff. Parks and rec adding this … I don’t know what their enrollment looks like at this point. We were hoping to just get a couple of teams in each grade level, so we could get things rolling and grow it. But I think with the success that South had and that we had in flag this past year, hopefully it grows quicker than we expect.”

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West Forsyth girls flag football players celebrate Saturday after winning the Class 6A-7A state championship game. - photo by Jacob Smith

FCN: I know you have a wrestling background. When you look at Dylan Fairchild’s body of work in 2020-21, where does that rank among the most dominant wrestling seasons you’ve seen? Also, with wrestling producing two state champions [Fairchild, Ethan Rickert] and wrestling Camden for the state duals title, what do you think of the direction head coach Evan Goff has taken that program?

Phipps: “Evan’s worked really hard. I’m super proud of him, and he knows that. He’s here all the time, he’s wrestling all the time. It doesn’t matter what month it is. He’s all about wrestling. He’s got youth kids in here constantly. He’s one of the hardest-working head coaches I’ve ever been around. I will give him all the credit in the world. That’s not all it takes, but it does take that. That’s a good foundation to lay. You also need to have good athletes. We’ve been very fortunate to have some exceptionally good athletes, and Evan does a good job of getting kids to buy in. He was in the state championship this year, and last year he was in the state semifinals with at least three or four starters who he found walking the hallways as freshmen who had never wrestled. He coached them up and got them to the point where some of those kids finished top eight in the state individually. That’s a credit to him and his staff. He’s got some great guys that work with him.”

“As far as Dylan, it’s the most dominant season I’ve seen in Georgia. There’s no one even close. I saw a couple of guys in lower weight classes in Indiana back in the ‘90s [who were] almost identical. Of course, then they go on to be Big Ten champions at places like Penn State, Michigan and Iowa – big-time programs. So, I’ve seen a couple of kids like him in the lower weight classes, but I’ve never seen a heavyweight like him. Most heavyweights, although they’re not fat, they’re typically football players and they can be that 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6 and they’ve still got that little bit of baby fat on them and they’re not defined and that kind of thing. As a heavyweight, I can’t recall ever seeing one anywhere like him. I still remember his junior year, he wrestled in here at the Thanksgiving tournament. We’d just been knocked out of the playoffs the week before in football, so he comes in here and really hadn’t wrestled in months. He gets thrown up against a kid coming down here from McCallie [Tenn.], who was a two-time defending state champion up there who I think went to Tennessee to play football, and he pinned him in a minute and a half. I just remember going, ‘Holy crap. What do we got here?’ That’s when he first got my attention. I thought he was good before, but it wasn’t until he did that that I went, ‘This is different.’”

FCN: Moving ahead to spring, girls soccer was quite the rollercoaster ride, from losing to Lambert in the regular season to beating them in the state championship game. What was that like from your perspective?

Phipps: “Over the years, watching us play South and Lambert and Lassiter and other schools around the state that are traditionally powerhouses in soccer, I’ve seen some outstanding soccer teams. But I had never seen one like this. I had never seen a soccer team in 10 years – from anywhere; it just happened to be in West uniforms – that could score like that. And it wasn’t just Tori [DellaPeruta]. I know Tori scored a ton of goals, but Courtney [JeBavy] was unreal, and the ball-handling skills were great. Let’s just be completely honest, in high school soccer the skillset is not what it is when you watch college and pro level soccer. It’s just not. We had kids who had it. And it wasn’t scoring the goals where my mouth dropped open, it was the ball-handling that got them to the point to score, where you would just stand there and say, ‘Did you just see that?’ We would see that every game. Whoever I was around, we would stand there and go, ‘Did you see what she just did?’ I’m not going to lie, it was probably Tori 50 percent of the time, because I’ve never a girl player like that. I think she’s the best high school girls player I’ve ever seen in my life, with the exception of that girl we played against at Westminster."

 

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West Forsyth players celebrate Friday during the Wolverines' 1-0 win against Lambert in the Class 7A stat championship game. Photo by Jay Rooney Photography

FCN: What’s the biggest challenge facing West heading into the 2021-22 school year?

Phipps: “I think the biggest challenge is going to be understanding that we are now not the hunter. We’re not going to sneak up on anybody. When you play Lambert in certain sports – most of them, actually – you better bring your ‘A’ game. When you play South in certain sports, you better bring you ‘A’ game. When you play Buford or Mill Creek or McEachern, you better bring your ‘A’ game. I’m not saying that we’re to their level yet, but we’re real close. One of the areas I see it in all sports is how hard it is to make a schedule and how many schools will not play us, and it’s across the state. Making a football schedule right now – and we’re at the end of the cycle, so we’re going to have to make a schedule between now and Christmas – is not easy. There are very few schools that will play us anymore. Basketball has run into it, wrestling has clearly run into it, we see it in the spring sports.”

“When you get to the point where schools that are reputable schools – I won’t name any – who in the past would say, ‘Sure, when do you want to play,’ and would never even question it, now they’re like, ‘No, we don’t want any part of it,’ then you know. So, I think the challenge for this year is to stay focused on what’s in front of us and just worry about us and not buy into any hype. The truth is, I think we’re going to be ranked top 10 in a lot of sports all year, deservedly so. I almost wish they wouldn’t do the rankings in the season. The only ranking that matters is the one at the end, like everyone says.”

FCN: Did hosting the Corky Kell and hosting two playoff football games, in addition to playing deep into the spring season, help offset any financial loss caused by COVID-19 protocols, such as reduced attendance?

Phipps: “Yeah, and the other thing that helped immensely for us and the rest of the county was that we were at 60 percent capacity and not 20 percent capacity like a lot of these other places. Dr. Bearden and Nathan Turner were a big part of that, and that helped us. I will tell you that we ultimately played a lot more football games than some other schools. We didn’t expect the Corky Kell to come back to us. Because of that, we now have six home games this year. That’s good. We could be looking at seven or eight, and I’m good with that.”

“To answer your question, it did. But you never know. We did better than we expected, and we did well enough that we’re in a decent spot. I’ve got more money to start this season with than I was expecting to have. At the same time, you don’t know what you could have done, because we hosted some big games that was a little disappointing, the crowd that we had. I go back to basketball. Basketball was tough. I think it kept a lot of people away that would have come. We played South in here in the semifinals in the region tournament, so when they beat us in here, that was a huge game. Yet, I had more attendance at the Lambert/West soccer game – the first one – I had a better gate for that than I did for [basketball]. That would not have normally happened.”

“I’m interested to see this year, now that everybody can come back – especially with football. This Corky Kell is different than last year. Last year it was just the one game. We’re actually doing it the old way. We’re actually hosting the two games, which is going to be huge. I’ve already talked to Cherokee. Jeremy called me earlier [last] week and he’s like, ‘We’re going to have a monster crowd – just us.’ Of course, when it comes to seating I’ve got what I’ve got, but it should make for a cool atmosphere. It’s a Wednesday night, but I don’t think it’s going to matter. It’s the kickoff of the entire football season in the state of Georgia. I think that night is going to be really special. I’m excited and nervous all at the same time, because I don’t know what this is going to look like. I’ve got a feeling more people are going to want to come to football than have ever wanted to come to football in the history of football.”