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STATE OF THE PROGRAM: West Forsyth raises the bar again
West Forsyth's gymnastics team celebrates after being declared the Class 7A state champions during the 2017 season. - photo by Micah Green

At the conclusion of last school year, West Forsyth athletic director Brett Phipps felt it had been the best ever for the Wolverines between deep state playoff runs by the girls basketball and soccer teams and multiple state champions in individual sports.

After another school year, Phipps has come to the same conclusion.

Hard not to after the Wolverines got to celebrate their first state championship in a team sport in school history, courtesy of the gymnastics team’s knocking off three-time defending champion Buford. Sophomore Sienna Schreiber was the individual all-around champion, and junior Aundria Crittenden won state titles in the floor routine and vault.

It was a milestone day for the team and athletic program.

“That was huge to everybody,” Phipps said. “Baseball had their first-round playoff series that next week against Norcross, and they honored the gymnastics team between games. Coaches were coming up, and everybody felt like a gorilla had gotten off our back.”

West Forsyth year in review

Region titles: 0

Team state titles: 1

Individual state titles: 6

Director’s Cup finish: 10th in Class 7A (seventh in girls, 15th in boys)

Best boys state finish: Fourth, boys golf

Best girls state finish: First, gymnastics 

College signees: 29

Athletic participation: 938 (561 boys, 377 girls)

But West had plenty more to celebrate. Schreiber and Crittenden only had half of the school’s individual state titles. Liz Galarza had two more, one at the state cross country meet and another in the 1,600-meter run at the state track and field championships. Jack Haller won the pole vault state title, his first and the second straight for West.

And the Wolverines had more athletes and teams advance to postseason play than ever, many with best-ever performances including competition cheer (third in Class 7A), boys golf (fourth), boys lacrosse (state quarterfinals), softball (second round) and girls track (10th).

Baseball won a state playoff series for the first time since 2008. Boys basketball reached the state playoffs for the first time since 2011. Softball won a state playoff series for the first time ever. Girls soccer, girls basketball, football, girls and boys cross country and girls and boys tennis all returned to the state playoffs. Hunter Jolly placed third at the GHSA Traditional Wrestling State Tournament. Sheridan Shreiber had three top six finishes at the state swimming meet.

It all led to the school finishing a program-best 10th in Class 7A in the Regions Director’s Cup.

“I think you can argue it's the best year we've ever had in the history of the school, and last year probably was the best we'd ever had until this year,” Phipps said. “There are a lot of schools in the state of Georgia that would’ve taken this year and gone nuts with it.”

FCN: What was the day of the gymnastics state championships like?

Phipps: “We were the last on floor. We had a 10 and a 9.9. And I think we had a 9.7, and I think we discounted a 9.6. I'm not an expert on it all, but I’ve been at enough of (gymnastics meets) to start realizing, that's almost mathematically impossible for us at this point not to be top 1 or 2.

“And then Curt (Miller) – he's the athletic director in Henry County, and Ola High School was hosting –  so Curt came over to me, he pulled me down. He said, ‘I just want to tell you, you just won a state title. But you can't tell anybody, we're not going to go public for about 20 minutes.’ I’m like, ‘Why did you do tell me that?!’ Now, they kind of knew because they keep the math on a tablet, and Ashley knew we were right there, but she really wasn't 100 percent until the announcement.

“I couldn't be prouder of (gymnastics head coach) Ashley Owen. Ashley personally built that team out of virtually nothing over the last 4 to 5 years. She went up and down the hallways stopping kids, asking them in class, and then when she would hear some kid was in gymnastics she would go grab them.

“We had gymnastics before. I remember my first year as athletic director we had one kid on the whole team. We were just trying to put it together. Ashley got here and it all seemed to fit. Couldn't be prouder of what she did there and how she really got those kids interested. And now she's turned it into a cool something around here, and she did it with mostly sophomores. The future does look bright.”

FCN: You hired a new football coach, Shawn Cahill, former offensive coordinator at Lanier, and he’s the first head coach for West football not named Frank Hepler or with a strong connection to Hepler, like former head coach Adam Clack (now at Milton). How’s the transition going?

Phipps: “It's been really good. I was a part of this (football) staff when we opened this school, and I was on that staff for several years, and I’ve remained close to it. I understand what that culture of that staff was like, and I believe that the culture of that staff was a lot of our success early. We cared a whole lot more about us than we did me. That's a little unique.

“All of our coaches, I’m just a big believer in that we're all pulling in the same direction and it doesn't matter who gets the credit. And so, Frank helped instill that in the early years. Adam continued that. So, when we sat down to start interviews with all those resumes, we knew what we wanted. We were looking for someone who could come in here and fit into that mold. I absolutely have no doubt in my mind that we found him. Shawn's the kind of guy we would've hired here even if we didn't hire him as head coach. He fits who we are.

“I won't say it's been a completely seamless transition, because obviously it's the biggest shakeup we've ever been through. But given what we lost and given everything – we've got guys coming from three different counties for the last two months trying to make this work – I think everybody's breathing a sigh of relief with the summer, because they can actually be in the building at the same time.”

FCN: How did you like the competition in the new Region 5-7A with Forsyth Central and Milton added to the rest of the county’s public schools?

Phipps: “It was interesting. I guess my personal feelings may be different. There's so many (former) West people at Central, and there's so many (former) West people at Milton that it never – even before Adam went down there – it never felt like you were really playing somebody you hated. It was more like fighting with your brother. That's how I always saw it, and I think a lot of coaches saw it the same way.

“I think it definitely increased attendance, and I think it drove a little bit of spirit of competition within the county.

“When we made the football schedule, we said we're going to take that first week after the bye and make it rivalry week. Right out of the gate South and Lambert said, ‘We want to play.’ And right out the gate Central and North want to play. Me and (Milton athletic director) Gary (Sylvestri) looked at each other and said, ‘I guess we're playing – rival.’

“Then Adam goes down there and takes half the football staff. Shawn Cahill and I were talking the other day – it really is a rivalry now. I guess it really worked out, because I’m telling you, it's going to be intense.”

FCN: You’re going through a transition in leadership, with principal Heather Gordy set to move to Denmark, the county’s next high school to open in 2018. How has she impacted West athletics?

Phipps: “Losing Mrs. Gordy is a big deal. She's been a huge supporter of the athletic department. I'm excited about (Karl) Mercer coming in. He's a former coach himself. He was at Central. He coached football and track. I think we're going to be just fine in that regard.

“But whenever you have somebody that came in and kind of left her mark on the place like she did – she really supported us. There's not very much that she said no to when we came in or I came in and we said, ‘We'd like to try this,’ or, ‘We want to host this.’ She said, ‘Go for it.’ You don't get that everywhere. That to me has helped kind of elevate us.”

FCN: It was been a pretty rocky school year for the Georgia High School Association. How do you feel things stand with the organization?

Phipps: “I think we're on solid ground. I think that there are some things that are moving in the right direction. There's things that have to change. I think some of it's just some growing pains with change that's come.

“One of the mottos of the GHSA is we do what's best for kids. Sometimes that's a little bit hard to find in what's going on.

“I'm going to reserve judgment on the future until I see more. We've got to get the new guy (Dr. Robin Hines) in, and he's got his own things he wants to accomplish. I think a year from now I’ll be in a better position to have a stronger position.

“At the bare minimum, I think they know that a lot more people are watching than they probably thought were watching in the past.”