This past school year was a good one for West Forsyth athletics. The football team made the state playoffs again, this time under first-year head coach Shawn Cahill. The gymnastics team won its second straight state championship. The boys basketball team recorded its first winning season ever and hosted its first-ever state playoff game.
The way the Wolverines did all that, though, makes athletic director Brett Phipps think that there are much better days ahead.
“We probably had, across the board, 80 percent or more of all of our starters at the varsity level (be) either sophomores or juniors last year, and I would be willing to be half of those were sophomores,” Phipps said. “So, in many cases, we’re bringing back almost the exact same team we played with last year … I don’t want to jinx anything. I’m not saying we’re going to win state titles – I just feel like it’s going to be a good year.”
The upcoming school year will also be one of change, as eight new head coaches will come on at West: Chad Davenport for boys soccer; Jason Galt for girls soccer; Chris Kiefer for girls lacrosse; Wendi Arnold for basketball cheer; Taylor Sweeney for competition cheer; Kara Dicesare for football cheer; Bill Ballard for boys track and field; and Mallory Ranfos for girls tennis.
But even with all the new names, Phipps’ optimism pervades.
“The people we’ve been able to bring in either have a vast wealth of experience, a vast wealth of knowledge, or both,” Phipps said. “So I’m very comfortable and confident in all those people, and I think it’s going to be a good year – I really do.”
Note: Responses and questions have been edited for length and clarity.
FCN: What was your take on how head football coach Shawn Cahill did in his first year and how he took to the community here?
Phipps: Well, he's plugged himself in great here, like he's always been here. He's got a different vision for the future of the program, and it's different than I think a lot of coaches that have come into this county. I see coach (Robert) Craft at North have a similar vision for their program. But he's come to me with all kinds of ideas, and at first I'm kind of like, ‘You want to do what?’ And then I sit here and think about it for a minute and I'm like, ‘Okay, let's give it a shot. Let's see what happens, right?’ And so far, I think he's pretty much been spot-on.
And then there's a couple of things you kind of go, went back and go, probably won't do that again. But he's a first-year coach, so he's had these ideas in his head -- we're the same age, actually, so at 48, he's finally getting his crack at being a head coach, and he's excited about that -- so he's had these ideas bouncing in his head for years about what he would or wouldn't do if he got a program, and now he's got one. He's trying some things, and some things are working like he thought, and other things aren't blowing up in his face, they're just not what he wanted.
But overall, yeah, I think he's doing a really good job. And I'll tell you what he does a really fantastic job of, is recruiting coaches to come work here. He's got a lot of experiences through his experiences in Gwinnett, but also his father, and then he does a great job of making connections with the kids and the parents, and so it's been an easier transition than I thought it would be, just because it was so much change, but no, it's been really good.
FCN: The boys basketball team made a long-awaited breakthrough this year under coach Fred Hurt. What are some things you saw from him behind the scenes, seeing him work, that you think led to this?
Phipps: …It really just comes down to one thing: hard work. He's in there right now. He's one of the hardest-working head coaches we've ever hired. Yes, he's knowledgeable of the game, there's no doubt, and yes, he's a kid magnet, they flock to him and they like being around him and they know they're getting coached hard, but they know they're getting coached fair. But at the end of the day, he puts the hours in. He puts the time in. He goes to the clinics, he shows up at the school, he's here all the time, he goes to every football game, he goes to baseball games, he's visible, and that's so hard to do in the modern era of coaching. It's not like it used to be, it's not like it was even when I first started in this thing.
Next year will be my 28th year in education, and when I first started in the early 90s, you coached your season, when the season was over, you kind of were done until the season started again. And that's the way it was, and it was that way for a long time. And there's lot to be said for that – it was easier to get multi-sport kids and whatnot. But today, the people that do it right and are successful with these kids today are the ones who do it the way he does.
And Shawn does that too. We have a lot of our coaches do that. I'm not saying they don't, but Fredrick works hard … They know when he says, listen, we're going to have voluntary workouts or voluntary shootarounds in August or on some Saturday in July, he's going to be there. He isn't going to send some assistant, he's not going to just mail it in, not going to open the gym and go home, he's going to be in there. That's a big deal, and so they all show up. That's a big deal.
FCN: GHSA executive director Robin Hines has voiced his support for reducing the number of classes in the state. Do you have a view on the subject and how the current alignment is working out for everybody, you included?
Phipps: I don't feel too strongly about it right now, but I think what we've got to be careful of is all of these new schools coming online, and it's not just Denmark and Cherokee Bluff. There's new schools popping up everywhere all over the state every year. And this state's growing like bananas, and it's not just Atlanta, but Atlanta's the most of it. I can't say I like the four-year cycle very much, got to be honest, because we ended up last year in season, during football planning next year's schedule, and that was a nightmare. Finding people to play and anyway, while you're still trying to play a season. I didn't like that.
If you're on the two-year cycle, it allows you to better adjust for all these new schools coming online, but the bulk of these new schools obviously are in the north metro … I don't know how they're going to manage all of this growth if they don't have seven classes. Florida, I think, went to eight classes a year or two ago (Editor's note: It was nine.), because of the same reason. It was how they managed their growth. But we essentially have 8, with 1A private and public.
… I guess the reason I feel that way is this: I'm pretty confident that most of Forsyth County and certainly West is stuck right dab in the middle of the largest classification no matter how they slice it. We're still going to be playing the Gwinnetts, and the Cobbs, and the north Fultons no matter what they do, so if I were in a different classification, I would probably have a totally different feel for that. But since I know no matter what they call it – they can call it 10A – we're going to be there, because we're in the top 20 schools in the state as far as size, so we're stuck in the largest classification, no matter what.