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State of the Program: West Forsyth hoped for record-breaking spring, excited for future
West Forsyth’s boys swim and dive team knocked off Lambert in January at the county meet, ending the Longhorns’ 10-year reign. File photo

This story is the first in a summer series looking back at each Forsyth County school’s athletic year with that athletic director.

Brett Phipps had 2020 circled on his calendar. If he could, he’d line an X through it and start again.

It was supposed to be a banner spring for West Forsyth, the cherry on top of what might have been the best year for athletics in school history.

The gymnastics team was primed for their fourth straight state championship. The boys golf team brought back nearly every golfer from their state championship team. A young but talented girls lacrosse team was set to avenge its one-goal loss in the 2019 state title game.

“I’ve been there since the school opened, and there were so many years that we weren’t competitive and we had no shot at winning state titles. Then, here we were, poised to I think make a run at three of them, possibly,” Phipps said. “In baseball, I felt like with a little luck, baseball was a Final Four team, possibly. That’s disappointing for Mike (Pruitt), which was why I was a little surprised he stepped aside, but this is the year he had circled for a while, because he knew how good he was going to be.”

But the future appears to be just as bright for the Wolverines. Many sports across fall, winter and spring expect to contend for a championship.

In September, West Forsyth will host the first Corky Kell Classic game in county history.

Right now, though, all Phipps – and the rest of the world – can do is wait and see.

“I don’t want to jinx them. We are in a really good spot,” Phipps said. “You go to any season, you’re going to find sports that I feel are going to go out and make a little noise this year, if we can get a shot to go do it.”

FCN: It seems like West had so much to gain this spring, probably more than the average school. What were you looking forward to specifically?

Phipps: “We had a gymnastics team, which had virtually the whole team returning from a three-time state championship. Those kids were really excited about a four-peat. Then our boys golf team had the entire team back from a state championship. Then our girls lacrosse team – I think we were ranked second or third in the state when we got shut down. That’s a really young team, by the way. We had some seniors that helped us, but by and large, it was a freshman, sophomore, junior team. We were sitting in seventh in the director’s cup, and on the girls side, we were sitting in third place. I know everybody took a sock in the nose on this deal, but boy, it felt like we took an extra one.”

FCN: West hired Dave Svehla as its head football coach back in February. I know you didn’t get a spring practice, but what have you seen from him since he was hired?

Phipps: “I’ve been blown away. He’s been everything that we thought he was – and more. I’ve been around this a long time. This next year is going to be 29 years for me in education, in two states and seven different high schools. And I’m a football coach; that’s what I did until I took over as AD, even at West. I’ve been around this a long time. I’ve been around Hall of Fame coaches. I’ve worked for them. I’ve been around the good ones, and I’m going to tell you, he’s as good as I’ve been around.” 

“The thing that he’s done that I’ve been so impressed is helping us bring in quality people who know the sport, who are willing to work hard and spend time with kids. What they were able to get done – and I know there were programs all over the state doing this – all the Zoom calls, all the meetings online, everything that they could do short of getting together, until they could get together June 6, they did. We haven’t even wiggled our toe outside of the rules or anything like that, but they’ve worked their butts off and I’ve watched the kids work their butts off. They all bought in. You talk to any of the kids and they just say there’s a whole new energy around the team. Then combine that with the fact that I feel like we’re pretty talented on top of that. Dave’s been doing this a long time too, and he’s had some really quality kids, but he said right now there’s two or three that are as good as he’s ever coached.”

Jake Nichols
West Forsyth offensive coordinator Jake Nichols answers a question Saturday during the fifth annual Forsyth County News Football Media Day. Photo by Jacob Smith for the Forsyth County News
“Bringing in Jake Nichols and we were able to bring in Kyle Hill from Lambert. I’m going to tell you what, he’s an outstanding offensive line coach. I’ve been very impressed with him. We already had a very strong defensive staff in place, with Bill Ballard and Rob Tjong and those guys. It’s gelled really quick. Bill’s been around a long time, too, and seen a lot of stuff. Bill’s told me it’s come together better than anything he’s ever seen. He said it’s been a lot of fun. He really enjoys these guys. I don’t know how that translates to wins and losses, and I don’t really care, but I know this: our kids are having a good time, they’re getting coached up hard and they’re going to be competitive if we get a shot to go do it. That’s all we can ask for at this point.”

FCN: Another hire was Jim Ernst, who will take over for longtime baseball coach Mike Pruitt. He’s been there since the doors opened, right?

Phipps: “He and I are two of the originals that are left around. There are only about 13 of us now; I was counting the other day. There’s not very many. Jim has worked really, really hard. Me and Nathan teach an aspiring head coaches leadership class for the county, and we have for about five years, and he took it. I think that helped him immensely. In modern athletics, especially at a 7A school – yes, you’re a coach. There’s no doubt about it. But at the end of the day, you’re really the administrator over that sport, because most of these sports have multiple programs. A sport like baseball certainly does. We have three levels and 60-plus kids to manage, so it’s a lot to manage.” 

“I think that doing what he’s done for as long as he has, he was more than ready. We were fortunate to be sitting there, given the scenario in which it happened. We couldn’t really interview really well and everything else. Even if it was a perfect scenario, I feel like he would have been our leading candidate from the very beginning. He’s going to do great. He’s been in my office a bunch this summer, calling him. And that’s what I want.”

FCN: Back in the fall, you were able to lead West Forsyth’s first girls flag football team. What was that experience like for you?

Phipps: “I’ve gotten to do a lot of cool things. Like I said, I’m getting old – I’ve got the gray hair to prove it. I’ve done a lot of things and I’ve been around for a long time, I’ve got state championship rings and I’ve coached state champions, I’ve been on big-time football programs and have had four kids play in the league, but I thought for me personally that that whole experience was one of the top two or three athletic experiences in my life. I really mean that. I was exhausted constantly, because I was either at flag practice, or I was at a game, or I was at another game. I kind of made my schedule that way. My wife was like, ‘You’re going every night, plus Saturdays,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I know, but I’m having the time of my life.’ I couldn’t wait to get there. The kids were amazing.” 

West Forsyth sophomore Ellie Bullock, left, celebrates with fellow sophomore Catalina Infante Wednesday during the Wolverines' win against Lambert in the Forsyth County girls flag football championship game. - photo by David Roberts
“I hope everybody gives this program, not just in our school but in our county and in our state, an opportunity to grow. I’m telling you, there’s a future there. It’s not just because of the concussion thing in boys football, but rather just in general. It’s a completely different sport, and it’s so fun. It reminds me a lot of arena football. It moves to fast and the scoring can happen so quick. Of course, it didn’t hurt to have incredibly talented kids. There’s no doubt about that.”

FCN: Moving ahead to winter, wrestling seemed to take another step forward. How have you seen that program grow over the years?

Phipps: “I coached wrestling for seven years, too, at one point in my career. I was really, really close to this program on top of the fact that I know I’m the AD, but my sons went through it. My sons are graduating next week, going on to college next year, and they were part of the program. They wrestled in middle school, then they wrestled all four years of high school. To watch the arc of the program, Coach (Dennis) Stromie started us off at a high level, then some things plateaued – and I’m not blaming anybody; it just happened. Then Evan (Goff) came in and I feel like we got it back up to where it was with Coach Stromie. The difference, of course, is that was in 3A back in those days, now we’re doing it in 7A.”

“Just getting the kids excited. I’ll tell you, that’s something that Evan does a great job with. He’s plugged into all these wrestling facilities in our district, in metro and where our kids are going, and he supports that. He walks the hallways and he sees a kid and says, ‘Hey, you need to try this.’ There’s a couple kids who are vital to what we’re going to do this year that he just grabbed out of the hallway. Evan is a fantastic coach and he gets those kids excited.”

“You could make the argument for three, maybe four kids, who can all be state champions next year. Of course, that translates into team points and helps the team. If I’m being completely honest, the sport I’m most concerned about for this school year is wrestling. It is by far the one that has concerned me the most from the very beginning, as far as what’s going to happen. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. That seems like a long way down the road.”

“I do want to mention one more thing for fall before we move on to anything else, and that is our boys cross country team. Our boys cross country team finished third in the state and that entire team is back. So, Coach (Clayton) Tillery is sitting on a really strong, competitive team. His girls will be strong, too. I’m excited to watch those kids do their thing.”

FCN: Swim and dive enjoyed another great year. What do you expect from that program moving forward?

Phipps: “Michelle Heindl is taking over as head coach for this next season. Coach Tillery is stepping back. Michelle swam at Florida and she’s got extensive experience. She’s been an assistant with us for the last couple of years on the swim team, so I know we’re in good hands there. As far as the team itself, that’s a special group. It’s not just Jack (Aikins). There’s a bunch of kids on that team who are getting recruited. There were a bunch of them that made All-American status here in the past couple weeks. To be the first team in the county to ever win a county championship other than Lambert, that’s special for them. You talk to any of those kids, they’ll bring it up five seconds into the conversation. I know they were proud of their finish in state over all, but that county title was a big deal for them – and it should have been. Lambert is the premier program really in the state of Georgia, so if you can beat them, you’re doing really good there.”

FCN: Girls basketball will have a very strong nucleus coming back next year. You look around the region, and it seems like they’ll have a chance to contend for a region championship.

Cayla Cowart
West Forsyth sophomore Cayla Cowart directs the offense against Milton on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. - photo by David Roberts
Phipps: “Our girls basketball program, I’m super excited for them. Not that (head coach David May) hasn’t been excited, but he is as excited about the season coming as I’ve ever seen. He’s worked for me eight years and I’ve never seen him like this. Even when we had Jenna Staiti, and he was excited for her, and some of those seasons we went to the Final Four and he saw that coming. But boy, this group right here is special, and we’re going to be for the next couple of years. That’s going to be fun to watch, as well.”

FCN: How does the school account for the loss of revenue that really began back in March, and what happens if that carries over into the fall?

Phipps: “I don’t know what we’re going to do, if I’m being completely honest with you. If we end up in a situation where we can’t have fans in the stands for football stands … it’s no different than college. Football is such a big juggernaut that the revenue that we make off of football – for all practical purposes, it’s not 100 percent – floats the other sports, winter and spring. When you do anything to change that, it automatically changes your goals, because now you can’t afford to do some of the things you wanted to do. Loss of spring revenue hurt. It didn’t help us any, there’s no doubt.”

FCN: With GHSA pushing the football season back two weeks, is it still a wait-and-see situation with Corky Kell?

Phipps: “No, not at all. IJ Rosenberg called me and said we’re still on, we’re still good for Sept. 2. We’ve got Carver and Cherokee at 5:30, then us and Mays at 8:30. We’re going to social distance that thing. I’ve got to mark the stadium off and do some things for them. We are going to cap it at 4,000 right now. The move back helps. If things continue to get worse, he said there will have to be some additional changes they’ll have to make. I would hate to go to a TV-only game, but I think that’s a possibility if the wheels completely fall off between now and Sept. 2. Right now, we’re all a go.”

FCN: Is there anything new West has planned for 2020-21?

Phipps: (Laughs) “I’m just going to white-knuckle it and hold on like a roller coaster and pray to God nothing else happens. Right now, a normal, old, boring year sounds exciting. If I can just get that out of the deal, I’ll feel good about it. So, to answer your question, absolutely nothing new. At this point, just going to school every day would feel like something new.”