This, Brett Phipps thought, was going to be one of those years for West Forsyth.
The Wolverines’ athletic director had talked with coaches across the program and heard a similar refrain: After a large and accomplished senior class graduated, teams needed young players to make big contributions to have any significant success.
"When you have a senior class that was really heavily involved across the board in both boys and girls [sports] and they leave, there’s a little vacuum," Phipps said.
And yet there was the football team in the state playoffs again. There was the girls’ lacrosse team back in the Elite 8. There was the girls’ basketball team winning the most games in the school history and reach the state tournament.
On and on it went for West – a young softball team reaching the state playoffs, boys’ golf making its first state championship event, freshman runners helping girls’ cross country finish fifth at the state meet.
"When you’re going through one of those seasons sometimes you hold your breath wondering what’s going to happen," Phipps said. "Our coaches did a fantastic job. I think our kids did a great job."
Forsyth County News sports editor Brian Paglia spoke with Phipps about West’s first football coaching search in seven years and why the Wolverines try to schedule the toughest competition possible.
What is your impression of how West athletics did this past school year?
"It was a really good year. We had a lot of teams where it was a transitional year for them, meaning we were trying to bring in young kids with older kids graduating. We have a lot of those kids coming back for this fall across the board. We had a couple new coaches [this past season], but now we’ve got several new coaches.
"Looking back on this year, I would say it was a really good strong year for us. We were competitive across the board. You always want to get more teams in the playoffs and finish higher in the region, but that’s year-to-year."
I’m trying to think – girls’ basketball was a young team …
"Boys’ basketball. Wrestling was really young. Our cross country team had some veterans, but they’re still young. When you look at softball, we had a couple of senior pitchers, but most of the team is back. They’re almost all sophomores. Our entire baseball team is back, and they were pretty young. Our entire girls’ lacrosse team is back. It’s kind of impressive.
"It was one of those years that schools just go through. When you have a senior class that was really heavily involved across the board in both boys and girls [sports] and they leave, there’s a little vacuum.
"I’ll give you a great example. Girls’ lacrosse. I remember talking to Coach [Dan] Kaplan before this year and he was saying, ‘Boy, it’s may be going to turn out to be one of those years.’ Then it turned out to be a fantastic season. Football, when you talked with Coach [Frank] Hepler a year ago he said, ‘Eh, I’m not sure what we’re going to end up with.’ Couldn’t have gone much better.
"So a lot of new kids stepped up this year. That’s good. Now we got them coming back. Now we got young kids to add to the kids we have.
"When you’ve going through one of those seasons sometimes you hold your breath wondering what’s going to happen. Our coaches did a fantastic job. I think our kids did a great job. Coach Z [Rick Zacholski] in the weight room and things he is doing in the offseason has made a huge impact.
"I just think overall it was a really strong year for us given what it could’ve been for as young as we were."
As a pure news item, what was it like around school when Hepler announced he was resigning?
"You know the school buzzed a little bit, but I think we rallied really, really quickly, and I think that goes to Mrs. [Heather] Gordy’s leadership and the fact that she got to know our people very, very quickly.
"I think the transition’s been good, because we haven’t had lots of turnover. We’ve had some coaches, like Kaplan’s leaving anyway. Coach [Robert] Fuller’s decided after 30 years he’s ready to not coach football anymore. But by and large, we’ve maintained the bulk of the staff.
"I really think on some level Coach Kaplan was almost as big a blow as Coach Hepler. I think that affected people too. We’re in Georgia. There are a lot of fantastic football coaches in the state of Georgia. If it wasn’t Coach [Adam] Clack, we would find somebody to come in and do a great job. Girls’ lacrosse coaches, and really good ones, are almost impossible to find. So Coach [John] Thompson is going to step up for us and do a great job. I think everybody feels good about that.
"Having said that, I knew when Coach Kaplan decided to go to Forsyth Central – and I don’t begrudge him a bit for it – that was going to be a huge blow to the athletic department. That has traditionally been one of those programs that you can just turn your back on it because you know it’s taken care of. Parents are treated well, the kids are treated well and the product’s going to be fantastic on the field. You don’t have a lot of those. It’s nice when you can have coaches like that. I’ve got several now. But you always wonder when you have transition what’s going to happen."
What have you thought about the job Coach Clack has done so far?
"He’s doing a great job, couldn’t ask him to do better than he’s done so far. He’s laid back when he needs to be laid back, and he’s intense when he needs to be intense. I think that he’s excited. I think that’s important. His excitement and level of intensity makes up for some of the balance he might be missing with his lack of experience. That kind of carries you through for a little bit. Plus, he’s surrounded by a bunch of really, really strong guys who’d make a good [head coaching] candidate in and of themselves, and some have. He’s in a really good spot for him.
"Our attendance in our offseason weight program never wavered. Our participation in spring ball was as high as ever. I don’t see any major glitches so far.
"I hate to say that wins and losses are indicative of that. We start at Carrollton, we bring Mill Creek in here and then we go to Alpharetta. That’s a Murder’s Row, and I don’t care where you are in the state of Georgia. But we did that on purpose. We’ve had Gainesville-Flowery Branch the past couple of years. We just feel like it’s good for our kids to see that kind of speed and athleticism before we get into region play. We’ve been fairly successful. We don’t have any state championship rings yet, but we’ve been fairly successful and we think the way we schedule helps with that.
"We had Camden County signed for a while. They were going to come here."
Like a home-and-home series?
"Yep, they were willing to come here this fall. They called back and they had a scheduling problem, so then there was about a two-week lull in there, and we weren’t sure what we were going to do. We finally signed with mill Creek. It was the next day Camden County called back and said they had their schedule fixed. And I thought we had Camden County and we were going to do a home-and-home.
"Those are the kinds of things that I think you do to build a program. I tell all our coaches in their non-region schedule to go out and find the toughest opponent you can. We’re not going to worry about wins and losses as much when it comes to non-region stuff, but hopefully there won’t be that many. And it hasn’t been. I feel like my coaches have done a good job."
What is it like to have an athlete like girls’ basketball standout Jenna Staiti at school?
"It’s fun. I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of great athletes and go to meet all the big-time coaches and that thing. The thing that makes this whole process easier is [girls’ basketball coach] David May, because David keeps her grounded. He does a nice job of helping her know what she needs to be working on and doing.
"Yeah, it’s going to get real interesting around here in the next two years. We’re already starting to see [college coaches]. Just had Maryland in the Final Four. And Maryland coach [Brenda Freese] and her whole coaching staff has been here a couple times, and she’s just great. She’s been to several of our games and come by to see [Staiti]. And I know she’s already committed to Maryland verbally, but that doesn’t stop [college coaches] from coming.
"We kind of went through that with [South Carolina football signee] Mo [Camara] a little bit two years ago. We had everybody and their brother coming by. We went through it last year with [football signee] Andrew Marshall a little bit when he went to Georgia Tech. We had Alabama coming and scouting him, and everybody else and their brother. If Alabama’s coming, they’re all coming.
"That’s kind of fun. You get to meet a lot of those people you see on TV. But I think it comes back to the coaches. The coaches keeping a routine, keeping them grounded, and keeping those kids feeling like I’m’ still a high school kid doing what I need to do. That’s a big deal. But particularly with Jenna, David’s done a fantastic job with her. We’ll see what happens. I expect her to go to Maryland, but you never know. I possibly could see a Connecticut in here. I think by the time she’s a senior she could probably be the top post player in the country."
How do you like the addition of Habersham Central and Northview coming into Region 6-AAAAAA?
"Well, Habersham’s in a weird spot, and I get that. [The GHSA] let Camden County play down [in classification] in everything but football, so they gave them the exclusion rule, so I thought Habersham would get that as well. It seemed like it made sense to get it for them.
"Habersham, they’re really strong in softball, wrestling, competition cheerleading. Their football team is not bad. We’ve got our hands full. And Northview, jeez, their boys’ lacrosse team just won the state title in Class AAAAA. Like this region need more lacrosse players in it. I think the last two years we finished one game out of making the playoffs in boys’ lacrosse, and that’s just how tough the region is. If it was any other region, we might have been region champ.
"Northview’s volleyball team is dynamite. You bring them in and add them with South Forsyth, Johns Creek, Chattahoochee, West and Lambert, and all of sudden this volleyball region got unbelievably tough. Wrestling is a sport in this region that I see leaps and bounds. North’s always a powerhouse. Chattahoochee is too. South’s really been coming on. Habersham is fantastic. Lambert’s strong as well. I think we’re poised to have a good season.
"It just seems like every sport seems to get a little tougher and tougher every year. Everybody’s putting more focus on it. Everyone’s coaches are spending more time on it. We’ll see how everything goes, but we play in a really tough backyard. There’s no doubt about that. Doesn’t really matter what sport it is."
Anything else about this past year?
"Every year you try to look at the past and think about how you can make it better. We’re going to try something this year. What I want to try this year is to try to have a rallying point. We’re going to have a little slogan for this year, and we’ll have yard signs printed and some banners and things. We’re going to have ‘Sweat Gold, Bleed Blue.’ We’re going to have that on as much stuff as we can and be a rallying point for the players and coaches and maybe inspire some school spirit and that sort of thing.
"I’m really excited about next year, because I know that we’ve got a lot returning. Probably the team that I’m most excited about is cross country. Our girls’ cross country team has a chance to do something really special this fall. I don’t want to jinx them, but Coach [Clayton] Tillery’s been talking to me about that, and we have a couple of move-ins there. He’s like, ‘If we just have some luck – no one gets hurt – and the kids work hard, we’re going to be right there.’ Well, then we had two move-ins. We had a couple of girls who didn’t run last year who I think he’s finally talked into it. He was telling me today they’ve already had a great summer so far.
"Everything’s right on schedule. I’m not saying we’re going to win a state title, but it’s always nice to be there as opposed to, well, we’re just going to stink this year. That’s a sport that I’m really excited about this fall."