- Jodie Wagner Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
It’s been more than a decade since the Forest Hill boys basketball team finished a season with a winning record.
The Falcons went 16-11 in the 2005-06 season, and haven’t come close to matching that performance … until now.
Under second-year coach Tony Watson, Forest Hill is flourishing.
The Falcons, who finished 9-15 in Watson’s inaugural season, already have matched that win total heading into the second half of the season.
Forest Hill takes a 9-1 record into its home tournament, the Forest Hill Holiday Classic, which begins Thursday and runs through Saturday. The Falcons play Atlantic Christian Academy at 7:30 p.m. in the finale of a four-game opening-day set.
Watson, whose team started 9-0 before falling to perennial power Wellington at the Palm Beach Shoot Out last week, attributes much of his team’s early success to maturity and experience.
The Falcons lost eight seniors from last year’s team, but returned a trio of senior starters — guard Phillip Lyttle and wings Shawn Kelly and Tristan Stephens — who have taken on valuable leadership roles. Senior wing Jalen Jackson and senior guard Mehki Millender also have contributed this season.
“The biggest thing as an experienced coach is to come in and build a foundation for that program,” said Watson, a longtime basketball coach who spent six seasons at Palm Beach Gardens and three seasons as an assistant with the Palm Beach Atlantic men’s team.
“My first year coming in, we had some juniors that had some good talent that we had to improve and make that into a team. Last year, that was our time to jell and grow as a program. Now, those juniors have become seniors, and having that experience with a new coach, new program and new system, we’re starting to reap the benefits.”
Forest Hill took big strides forward last year, more than doubling its win total from the previous season. But the Falcons missed the postseason in competitive District 13-8A, which sent one team — Palm Beach Lakes — to the state semifinals last year.
The Rams return this season for another potential playoff run, as does last year’s district runner-up, Dwyer, which has gotten off to a 13-0 start and is coming off a tournament championship at the Holiday Basketball Classic.
Watson hopes Forest Hill will be in the mix for a district championship, though challenges lie ahead.
“Our district is very tough,” he said. “We have to rely on each other. More importantly, we have to trust the system. Right now, our system is starting to produce some results. That’s why we’re playing well at the moment.”
Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Attendance at Forest Hill basketball games has grown tremendously since the start of the season.
“Winning solves a lot of problems,” Watson said. “With our fans, we’re now able to have a red-out, a white-out, a black-out. The students are starting to come out, and we’re starting to put people in the stands.
“The buzz is out now for Forest Hill basketball, and our job is to keep the buzz coming.”