It was the plan all along, for one decorated high school basketball coach to bring one decorated high school basketball player and build the Lambert girls’ team into a competitive program. When Tony Watkins left Parkview and brought Jaime Fisher from South Gwinnett with him before this season, the future was always in mind. When the time was right, Watkins would step away and Fisher would step up.
Plans were accelerated Wednesday morning. In a meeting with players, Watkins announced he had resigned after just one season with the Lady Longhorns and Fisher had been promoted to head coach.
“It all worked out just a little quicker than we thought it was going to be,” Watkins said.
Watkins said he was stepping down for personal reasons. Distance was a crucial one, he said. He had hoped to move from Gwinnett County, where he had coached 13 of the previous 14 seasons, to Forsyth, but “that just hasn’t been the case,” he said.
Expectations for Lambert’s girls’ basketball program soared when Watkins was hired last year. The veteran coach was coming off a two-year run with the Lady Panthers in which his teams went 59-2 and won consecutive Region 8-AAAAAA championships. Watkins’ résumé has been one of turning fledging programs into contenders, whether at Woodward Academy, where he coached the boys’ team for 14 seasons, or at Shiloh, North Gwinnett, Lanier and Parkview.
A young and inexperienced Lambert team went 6-19 overall and just 1-13 in Region 6-AAAAAA in Watkins’ only season. The Lady Longhorns’ last win of the season against McIntosh on Jan. 18 was the 600th of Watkins’ career.
It was a rebuilding year, much as Watkins expected, but injuries also hindered Lambert’s progress. Two starters went down with season-ending injuries, and by the end of the season the Lady Longhorns’ starting lineup often featured two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior.
“Even though we didn’t win many this year I still think we were successful,” Watkins said. “I think we’re going in the right direction and things are only going to get better.”
That will now be left to Fisher.
Fisher joined Watkins at Lambert after a storied tenure as a player and coach at South Gwinnett. Fisher played on the Lady Comets’ 1994-95 state championship team, played four years at Georgia Tech and then returned to South Gwinnett as an assistant coach. Fisher took over as head coach for the 2009-10 season and went 55-55 with two state tournament appearances in four years.
Fisher said she joined Watkins at Lambert as a de facto coach-in-waiting, knowing one day Watkins would leave and she would ascend to head coach. She just didn’t expect it to happen this soon.
Regardless, Fisher’s familiar with the situation. Just as she did at South Gwinnett in 2009-10, she’ll step into the head coaching role already acquainted with Lambert’s program.
“I’ve got good relationships with the girls, I’ve got a good coaching staff,” Fisher said, “and so it will be a very smooth transition.”
Now, Fisher said she’s eager to get to work. Lambert returns virtually its entire roster next season. Its ninth grade and junior varsity programs both won county championships. With North Forsyth and South Forsyth making historic runs in the state tournament this season, Fisher is optimistic the Lady Longhorns are next in line to ascend as a state tournament contender.
“I am very excited to see where this program is headed,” Fisher said. “We have good young talent. We’ve got a large group of girls who were on varsity this year coming back. So we have a very good core coming back.
“North Forsyth and South Forsyth had great runs in the state tournament and were able to bring attention to the level of play in Forsyth County, and I’m hoping that Lambert will be able to compete with that as well. That’s the plan.”