The third time was the charm for the Forest Hills boys basketball team, which last winter won its first-ever state title after reaching the regional finals each of the previous two seasons.
“Coming in freshman and sophomore year and seeing those seniors lose made us want to work harder last year,” said point guard Jai Rorie. “We wanted to try to keep that up and get back for them.”
In 2015-16, the Yellow Jackets had been stung by East Lincoln in the regional final and lost the following season to North Surry in the western regional final both times falling one game short of a trip to the title game.
Last season they got the Final 4 for the third time, this time overcoming Salisbury in a 71-67 thriller in the regional championship. It was the first time the Yellow Jackets had ever been regional champs.
“Those losses really, really stung to get that close because you never know if you’re going to have a chance to get back,” Yellow Jacket coach Matt Sides said. “But I think both of those years gave our kids a taste that they’d been there before. I think last year when we got to the Final 4 against Salisbury our kids felt a little more comfortable and we got off to a little better start. I don’t know if you can quantify being on a big floor in a big college gym, so it was definitely a good thing for us.”
In the championship game, Forest Hills hit seven 3-pointers in the third quarter alone and Rorie’s 22 points helped the Yellow Jackets hold off a late Greene Central run.
Gone from last year is starter Jaleel McLaughlin, who this fall led the nation in rushing at Notre Dame College in Ohio and who scored 16 in the championship game.
It’s a big loss, but the Yellow Jackets will bring back much of the same personnel and the same defense-first, fast-break and 3-point shooting approach that has led to unchartered success over the past three seasons.
“We put a big premium on defending and rebounding because we can’t be a good shooting and running team if we can’t do those two things well,” Sides said. “We work on shooting consistently in practice and we want them to shoot open 3s. The game of basketball has evolved over the years. These guys can shoot it, and we work on it every day.
“We want them to be loose. We tell them not to worry if they miss two in a row. If you’re open and you miss, it’s OK. We want them to shoot it because it’s a good shot. If it’s a good shot within your range, shoot it. It doesn’t matter if it goes in or not if it’s a good shot.”
And the Jackets have a lot of guys capable of running, playing good defense and, especially, shooting the open shot.
Six-foot-one senior Nas Tyson averaged 17.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 2.7 steals and made 97-219 3-point shots (44 percent) last year. Tyson is a three-time all-conference pick and is the two-time Rocky River Player of the Year. He is also the all-time Forest Hills scoring leader with 1,582 points and has drawn lots of recruiting interest including from Hampton, his lone Division I offer to date.
“For us to play well it comes down to running, and that’s what we like to do and what we do well,” he said. “For us to be able to do that we have to be well-conditioned and get defensive rebounds.”
Rorie, the championship game MVP, is a lethal outside shooter. As a sophomore, the two-time all-league selection made 132-303 3-pointers (44 percent), the fourth-most in NCHSAA history. Last year, he made 141-311 3s (45 percent) to break his own record. Rorie, a 5-9 guard, is third in NCHSAA history with 335 career 3-pointers made, and last season he averaged 14.5 points.
Trey Belin, a 6-3 senior forward with heavy Division II interest, was the Most Outstanding Player in the NCHSAA finals, and is a great shooter in his own right. Last season, Belin averaged 11.7 points and seven rebounds per game and made 52 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip.
“We’ve worked really hard to get where we are at,” he said. “We’re going to give it our all for one last ride and come together one more time as a family and work hard every day. That’s what drives us in here.”
Jamylan Blakeney, a 6-7 sophomore post, averaged seven points and five rebounds per game but is just reaching his ceiling and is getting high Division 1 interest. He could be a difference maker, and especially so as the one traditional post player, although he has some range on his shot and isn’t scared to take his game outside the paint.
Cam Richardson replaces McLaughlin as a crafty defender, extra ball handler and another outside shooter who can stroke it. Last season he was an energy guy off the bench, who showed his versatility by averaging a couple points, rebounds and assists per game, but didn’t get the consistent shots he’ll get this year.
Senior Keeshawn Johnson is a football guy who provides strength, toughness and rebounding inside. Last season he averaged about four points and four rebounds, and Johnson will again serve in a sub role as he can guard all five positions and play inside or out on offense.
Joining the ranks this season are JV call-ups Jalen Huntley, Brandon Barrier and Dillon Wright. Sides said they understand the system and realize they’re a twisted ankle away from being a starter on the 30-2 defending state champs.
“Jalen, Dillon and Brandon impressed us on the JV level, and all three seem really excited to step in and play a role of us,” Sides added. “They know this is a big senior class, but these guys are going to have a chance to step in and compete. They all know they have a chance to do something very special.”
One caveat to a repeat could be teams that like to slow the games down and run half court sets. The Yellow Jackets averaged 73.8 points per game and were 22-0 when they scored 70 or more points in a game. On the flip side, though, Forest Hills was just 2-2 in games where they scored 60 or less including narrow wins against Monroe (57-54) and Camden (52-49).
But this is a seasoned group that includes Belin, Johnson, Rorie and Tyson who have together gone 84-10 and played together in every possible game and on the biggest of stages.
So how have they been so successful?
“The reason they’ve lost 10 games in three seasons and are on pace to set the Union County record is them,” Sides said. “It’s the players. There’s nothing else to it, and it’s not just from a basketball standpoint. These guys work hard, and give them credit because they put up with me and I push them a lot and demand a lot out of them.
“They deserve all of the credit because they’re the ones who allow themselves to be pushed. And, they’re just as good people, if not better, than they are basketball players. That’s the reason why you win.”