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Watkins, Lambert girls basketball getting to work
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Lambert rising senior center Sierra Martin and the Lady Longhorns are all ears as first-year head coach Tony Watkins explains how to run a play during practice Monday. - photo by Photo by Brian Paglia Forsyth County News

Kelsey Morkem grabbed the rebound, passed to Chelsea Thompson and Lambert was off and running up the court in transition.

"Freeze!" Lady Longhorns coach Tony Watkins yelled.

Players stopped, Thompson’s pass intended for a teammate up the court fell to the floor and Watkins walked over from the sideline to explain where the pass should’ve gone and why.

Play resumed at Lambert girls basketball practice but not for long. Seconds later, a player drove down the baseline into a double team.

"Freeze!" Watkins said.

Over walked Watkins. He recreated the drive but gave the player two better options – pull up for a short jumper or kick the ball out to the top of the key.

"It’s an instructional period," Morkem said. "He’s telling you what to do to be successful."

Lambert is listening to their new head coach and for good reason. Watkins has a 592-254 career record in 32 seasons as a varsity basketball coach. He’s coming off a remarkable two-year stint at Parkview as girls basketball coach where the Lady Panthers went 59-2, their only losses coming to eventual state champion Norcross in the state tournament both seasons.

Watkins’ departure from a Parkview team returning 10 of its top 12 players that could enter next season ranked No. 1 in Class 6A made for one of the more intriguing offseason moves.

"We left the best team in the state," Watkins said. "There’s no doubt about that. My situation is a little bit different than most. I’ve got two adult special needs kids. We wanted to get them out here [in Forsyth County]. And there wasn’t going to be a place like [Lambert] that was going to come along in the future. We felt we had to jump on it."

The hire of former South Gwinnett star player and successful Lady Comets coach Jenna Fisher as Watkins’ top assistant sealed the decision.

"Jamie coming with us, that just made it double [exciting]," Watkins said.

And so they’ve gotten to work on shaping Lambert. Watkins is taking the same approach he has everywhere he’s coached. The approach that helped him lead Woodard Academy boys basketball to four state tournament appearances, including the semifinals in 1997. The approach that helped him lead Shiloh boys and North Gwinnett girls and Parkview to the state playoffs.

Except at Parkview, it was all the same. Watkins would arrive at a program starving for success and deliver it soon. He did it by earning the players’ trust, by being unflinchingly honest and supportive.

"The most important thing in coaching any team is they’ve got to know you care about them and have got their best interest at heart off the floor," Watkins said. "Once they do that, I think they’ll run through a wall for you."

That process started with Watkins’ first meeting at Lambert with players and families. Watkins said he told them he considered himself the players’ parent at school. It’s continued with a constant barrage of texts and tweets with words of encouragement and motivation.

"He always tweeting how good we’re doing and about ‘team’ and how he’s so happy to be here," Thompson said. "He’s such a very positive person, and it’s great to be around."

"It’s encouraging to have a coach who believes in you," Morkem said.

There’s little convincing left for Watkins to do. Players often show up half an hour early to practice and are rarely absent. Watkins is encouraged by the program’s numbers with 40 players regularly at practice.

"He’s made a major impact," Thompson said. "He’s really good at what he does. He knows what he’s doing, and it’s really good to have someone like that at Lambert."

The next part of the process is fixing the product on the court. The Lady Longhorns snuck into the state tournament last season but finished 10-19 a year after winning a school-record 18 games.

Watkins said this summer has been all about evaluating the program’s talent. Lambert has played games at Centennial, Pickens County, the University of Georgia and will camp at Georgia College and State University this weekend. The Longhorns varsity team has gone 6-7, while Watkins said the junior varsity and freshman teams have each gone 11-2.

"I think the future’s bright," Watkins said. "We’re not giving up on next year, because I think we’ll be competitive when November rolls around. We’ve just got a lot of work to do."