Forest Hill is the top seed in this week’s Class 7A state championships and will face Seminole, out of Sanford, in the semifinals Friday
WEST PALM BEACH — Four years ago, Tony Watson left his job as an assistant basketball coach at Palm Beach Atlantic, accepting the dubious task of reviving Forest Hill High School’s dormant program.
With little fan support and a culture of losing — it had been more than three decades since the Falcons’ last district championship in boys hoops — Watson began the grueling process of building a program.
"Growing up in Palm Beach County, I’m fully aware of Forest Hill and other schools," Watson said of his first season. "To my advantage, I knew what I was getting into and the road we had to take."
Apparently, he did.
Watson, a former head coach at Palm Beach Gardens, transformed the Falcons from laughing stock to state-title contender in four short years. Top-ranked Forest Hill (28-2) faces No. 4 Sanford-Seminole (26-4) in the Class 7A semifinals at 2:30 p.m. Friday in Lakeland.
"It has really grown, the love the community is showing for Forest Hill basketball," Watson said after last week’s regional final win over Park Vista. "When I came here four years ago, the audience wasn’t like it was (against Park Vista). We had a ton of people come and see us."
As the Falcons stand two games away from the school’s first boys basketball state title — the Class 7A final is scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday in Lakeland — even the team’s players are amazed at how quickly Watson built a contender.
"Four years ago, no, I couldn’t imagine this," said Falcons senior point guard D’Ante Daniels, the only current player at Forest Hill when his new coach arrived. "But I always pictured myself going to states and winning it. The mission is to win, not just go there."
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Forest Hill saw the fruits of Watson’s labor a year ago, as the Falcons won their first district title in roughly 40 years and made the regional semifinals before losing at perennial power Pompano Beach-Blanche Ely.
This season, Forest Hill not only repeated as district champs, but added a regional title to its quickly-filling trophy case. The Falcons arrive in Lakeland on a 22-game winning streak and haven’t lost since mid-December.
"This is what he does — he puts us in good opportunities," said Watson’s son, Forest Hill junior forward Donovan Draper, who finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks in the regional final. "This is nothing more than what we expect."
The Falcons, already a top returning team before this season, got even stronger with the addition of senior transfers Troy Joseph, formerly of Oxbridge Academy, and Jonathan Mogbo (Cardinal Newman).
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"Coach Watson found players who want to play the game, who love the game," said Forest Hill junior guard Jalen Jeter. "We are all passionate about playing Forest Hill basketball. Everything coach says, we listen to him. We want to get to the level he’s reached."
For Joseph, playing for Watson was a no-brainer. And it’s certainly not a decision he regrets.
"This is the reason I came here," Joseph said. "Forest Hill has always been known as a gritty team that picks up full court and applies pressure. It didn’t take long to mesh (with the returning players) since we’ve all known each other for a long time."
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Draper, a still-developing Division I college prospect, said the Falcons received a huge boost when Joseph and Mogbo joined the program.
"Those are two great players that came here as seniors," Draper said. "They were ready to play from the first practice. We welcomed them with open arms."
Watson added: "These guys are friends off the court, too. When you have guys that enjoy each other’s company, it makes the team stronger on the court. Their love is real."
Although Watson cautioned his players against overlooking Seminole in the semifinals, the Falcons are taking a confident swagger to Lakeland.
"To be honest, I want to win really bad," Jeter said. "The time is now — we may not get a second chance. The seniors want it bad, knowing these are their last high school games."
The Falcons should return next season as a state contender again, though Watson also prefers getting the job done this weekend.
"I want our kids to have confidence in Forest Hill basketball," he said. "This is what we worked for all year. We’re going there to represent Palm Beach County."