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Two newcomers making a mark in Region 7-AAA
West Forsyth, Creekview both drawing respect from region coaches
West Forsyth quarterback Lance Baker runs with the football against North Forsyth. - photo by Jared Putnam

Region 7-AAA used to be a fairly predictable region when it came to football. The same cluster of teams would lay claim to the four playoff spots more often than not. Even when the subdivided region came into play in 2006 things didn’t change all that much.

"We used to have this little region to ourselves for a long time," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "Even though you would have a school like Fannin County that would sneak in in the past, things really didn’t change all that much."

But the addition of West Forsyth (4-0) and Creekview (0-3) may have finally shifted the balance in 7-AAA. No longer do schools like Gainesville, Flowery Branch and North Hall own an automatic key to the playoffs in what was previously an 11-team region.

"I’m very impressed with both of those programs," Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw said. "Those jokers are both scary good."

Now expanded to 13 teams, Region 7-AAA is in an era of great change, and there’s a lower probability of landing a playoff spot for every team. With the split region, the top two programs in each subregion still earn the playoff berths.

Creekview and West Forsyth both joined Region 7-AAA after working out the growing pains to some degree. The Grizzlies, in their fourth season, played a non-region schedule last season and compiled a 9-1 record, with their only loss to North Oconee by four points.

"We just want to add to the competitive level in Region 7-AAA," said Creekview coach Al Morrell, whose team will compete in subregion A. "We know all the teams in this region are all well-coached."

In 7B-AAA, West Forsyth is certainly going to make some teams sweat it out if they hope to keep the traditional stranglehold on the region. West Forsyth opened its doors in 2007 and played a junior varsity schedule last season.

Now in their first season of varsity football, the Wolverines are making it clear they aren’t going to be a pushover. In fact, West Forsyth has to be consider a legitimate playoff contender.

The Wolverines first grabbed attention by scoring 77 points against Adairsville in Week 2. West Forsyth coach Frank Hepler doesn’t know if it was a blessing or a curse to raise expectations so high with such a big win against an established opponent.

"Maybe that wasn’t a good thing scoring 77 points so early," said Hepler, who has an established career after coaching 14 seasons at Florida Class AAAAAA school, Plantation High.

"Some people may see that and wonder why we can’t do that every week," he added with a laugh.

The rest of the region has certainly taken notice.

"They (West Forsyth) came out like gangbusters," said Miller, whose Red Elephants will get a first-hand look at the Grizzlies when they travel to West Forsyth next week.

Hepler already has a track record of fielding a winning program. He led Plantation to 10 region titles, five undefeated regular seasons and three Florida Class AAAAAA state semifinal appearances between 1991-2004. He also turned out some good players including University of Georgia defensive tackle Jeff Owens and Washington Redskins linebacker H.B. Blades.

Hepler believes that the balance in Region 7-AAA still belongs to the more-established powers like Gainesville and Flowery Branch. He believes his upstart Wolverines playing in one of the toughest Class AAA regions in the state, and said his program is still at the point where it is developing young talent and learning his multiple wing-T offense.

Still, the vision of potentially being in a playoff hunt is exciting for these players.

"We haven’t put that much emphasis on our record," Hepler said. "Our goal is simply to be better today than we were yesterday."

West Forsyth isn’t completely wet behind the ears when it comes to football. Ben Emert, a junior, is the leader of the Wolverines running game with 482 yards. West Forsyth senior quarterback Lance Baker has 550 yards passing and six touchdowns.

Dane Magnussen, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound senior, is a defending Class AAA state champion wrestler, and leads the Wolverines on the line. Sophomore Ethan Shirley is a promising young wide receiver for West Forsyth.

"I think our seniors and experienced players have done a good job," Hepler said. "But we’re still pretty young."

Shaw sees a battle setting up at the end of the season with games against West Forsyth and Gainesville to wrap up the regular season.

"They have the possibility of shaking this whole thing up in 7-AAA," Shaw added.

This is Creekview’s first senior class, and the Grizzlies start 14 seniors. This is also Creekview’s first season being eligible to make the playoffs.

Morrell says his team is engaged in a mental battle right now with three narrow loses. Creekview lost to Class AAAA’s Sequoyah by one, took Flowery Branch down to the wire, and lost by only a field goal to West Forsyth last Friday.

The Grizzlies are looking for their first win against North Hall on Friday night at The Brickyard.

"I think our kids are a little frustrated right now losing so close," Morrell added. "It would be huge for us to get that first win against a very hard-nosed North Hall team."

West Forsyth travels to East Hall on Friday in the subregion opener for both teams.

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