2014-16 Region: 7-AAA
New head coaches this year: Rachel Lawley, volleyball; Kasey Knight, softball
West Hall athletic director Ethan Banks will proudly tell you “it’s a great time to be a Spartan.”
That type of school pride is not uncommon on campuses around the country, but for Banks and West Hall, recent results on the athletic fields and the outlook for the immediate future make the statement ring especially true.
The Spartans ended 11-year postseason droughts in both football and baseball last season, reached the state semifinals in boys soccer, and are early favorites to compete for multiple region titles in the new-look Region 7-AAA during the coming season.
“It’s kind of an exciting time,” said Banks, who became athletic director midway through the spring after Scott Justus took over as principal. “It’s sort of a different atmosphere. We’ve kind of felt that coming on over the last year or two years.
“We’ve got the right coaches in place, we’ve got the right region alignment, and a hunger from our students and coaches to succeed. I think we’re right there in the middle of this perfect storm opportunity.”
The Times sports editor Jared Putnam sat down with Banks to discuss the Spartans’ big turnarounds in the 2013-14 school year and what the athletic director sees for the future, as part of a series of question-and-answer sessions with area athletic directors.
West Hall football and baseball sort of paralleled each other last year. Both head coaches were in their second year here, both programs had not been to the state playoffs in 11 years, and they both broke that drought with a postseason appearance and near-upset in the first round. What were the biggest factors there?
“The timing was right. I think bringing those two coaches into those two programs that really needed more than just a coach.
“When you talk to those guys, they expect so much out of those teams. They don’t accept loss. That’s the kind of leader we want, and they’re building programs, not just a team. They’re building something the kids will buy into.
“It was key for us to kind of get rid of that drought and start a sort of new era for West Hall. I think we were hungry. I think the kids were hungry. Changing a culture is always hard.
“We’ve (now) got kids wanting to try out for football. You don’t have to go beg them to play. You don’t have to find that big kid in the hallway and say, ‘Why aren’t you playing football?’ He’s out there already.”
Or have to worry as much about kids leaving for a more successful program?
“Yeah, we’ve seen a lot of that over the past decade. (The idea that) the grass is greener. We’ve had programs around us that were winning state championships. Two years ago, Jefferson, Buford and Gainesville (won football state titles) all around us. We’re competing with those, not only on the field, but also for athletes.
“When a kid can move five miles and be on a state championship team, it’s hard to keep them. And so these coaches here have created programs that kids want to be a part of.”
What else stood out to you about last season?
“We had six teams competing at the next level (state playoffs) in spring. Boys and girls soccer were both great. We really saw a turnaround. I know it’s World Cup year and everybody’s sort of got soccer on the brain, but for that boys team to go as deep as they did (the Spartans reached the Class AAA state semifinals) was very exciting. We lost four kids (to graduation), so we’ve already got the rest of those kids talking about going back (deep into the playoffs).”
“I think we had some leadership changes as well that helped. Moving Dr. (Greg) Williams in from athletic director to principal ... we sort of modeled that again with moving Mr. (Scott) Justus (from AD) into the principal position. Having those athletic directors (go into) the principal position has helped a lot. There’s an expectation of excellence.
“I think the athletic program is not what drives your school, but it’s definitely a pulse. If your athletic programs are doing well on the field and on the court, sort of the pulse of the school changes.”
Region 7-AAA looks dramatically different now with Buford, North Hall and White County all moving up to Class AAAA. You guys were already seizing playoffs spots and competing well in a lot of sports last year even with those programs in the region. With them gone, does that really open the door to start thinking about region titles and playoff spots for programs that didn’t make it last year?
“I think across the board we’re going to see the opportunity there really for all our teams to compete ... and know we can match up and do really well. That does a lot for a player’s psyche. You can coach players as much as you want and encourage them and tell your kids, ‘You can compete with this team,’ but (they have to) see the fruits of those labors and trust you.
“Looking at the region, there are some great programs, but those are also teams that we can compete with and be successful (against). We’re excited about that region. I think it’s a opportunity for some great matchups.”
What advice did former AD Scott Justus give you about this job after he became principal?
“Kind of the best advice he gave me was to stay organized and stay on top of things, be proactive rather than reactive. It’s always better to be ahead of the game than behind it.
“You want to trust your coaches and just make sure they’re running the programs the way they’re supposed to be run. I’m not a hands-on micro manager. I’m not going to go tell a coach, ‘This is what you need to do.’ I see myself as support staff; I help them cross t’s and dot i’s.”
Is Johnson West Hall’s biggest rival overall, even though you’re not in the same region?
“With soccer and basketball, Johnson has had great success. Across the board, we like to compete with Johnson. They have great programs and great coaches and great kids. We are to Johnson, I guess, as what Flowery Branch is to us. We came from Johnson, I’m a Johnson grad myself, so West Hall was sort of birthed from Johnson and there’s always going to be a rivalry there.
“Chestatee was our big (football) test last year. We weren’t supposed to compete in that game, but we jumped out there and showed what we could do. The score said we lost the game, but we competed with those guys. For the first time I think that’s when we really saw a lot of buy-in from our kids.
“We’ll mark down (the) North Hall (football game on the calendar), too. We’ve had a drought with beating North Hall, so we look to that game as a chance to compete and get where we need to be. I think we’ll also miss that White County game because it was always just so competitive. It was usually low scoring, usually a touchdown won the game for you.”
What are some of the bigger issues that West Hall athletics is facing, or high school athletics in general?
“The state is changing a lot of things with curriculum, and you hear the negative backlash about Common Core, teacher certification, teacher evaluation and things like that. There just seems to be a lot of red tape. I think from an athletics standpoint, we have an opportunity to really be cheerleaders for the system as a whole and recognize that change happens. Change most of the time happens because it’s needed or warranted. It gives you an opportunity to make things better than they are.
“Carrying that over to the athletics side, I think we can be champions for change. We’re working on that at West Hall. We’ve been pushed around a little bit in the last 10 years or so, but that’s changing and it’s important for ... everybody from top down and back up again to recognize that change happens because it’s needed.
“You can embrace change and make something positive come out of it, even though it’s sometime tough at the time. Nobody likes to be told what to do or how to do it, but if we can show gains from an athletic standpoint and know that those can carry over from a curriculum standpoint and an academic standpoint as well, I think that’s just a good opportunity.”
Obviously every school wants to win titles, but beyond that, what do you want to see West Hall athletics accomplish?
“We’re building programs. Year to year it’s not necessarily about winning a region championship or a state championship. Those are always goals, but to get to those goals you have to build a program.
“You have to, again, change that culture so that students will want to be a part of what you’ve got. We want our athletes to want competition. We want them to supplement academics with opportunities to compete with others on the field.”