On the first day of basketball practice, Forest Hills coach Anthony Amero went over the schedule for the upcoming season with his team. What games looked like wins, Amero asked. What games looked like losses?
The Tigers played out the season in their heads, and came up with a record of 14-4.
“Saying you’ll be 14-4 in the East/West Conference, that’s pretty bold,” Amero said.
But Forest Hills was coming off a Western Class D championship, and with the entire team back, the Tigers had reason to be bold. There were expectations of success in Jackman, and it was Amero’s job to make sure the team didn’t stumble.
The Tigers exceeded those expectations, winning 16 games in the regular season, before going 4-0 in the playoffs, including a 55-48 win over Central Aroostook to earn the school’s first boys basketball gold ball.
For leading the Tigers to their first-ever state championship, Anthony Amero is the Morning Sentinel Boys Basketball Coach of the Year. Mike McGee of Lawrence, Pete McLaughlin of Messalonskee and Wade Morrill of Valley were also considered.
Amero set the tone for the season when he laid out exactly what his team could expect from a community that, after getting a taste of success when the Tigers won the Western D title before losing to Jonesport-Beals in the state game, and was eager for more.
“There’s a lot more pressure. When you have your entire team back and went to the state championship, everybody expects you to go back and win it this time,” Amero, who earned his 200th career win with a victory over Valley in the Western D final, said. “I told the kids, ‘We’re all going to feel that pressure. We’ve just got to know that what we’re doing every day in practice is paying off.’ ”
“He wanted us to stay humble, but he knew we had a lot of talent,” senior Evan Worster said.
With just nine players on the roster, it was important for each to know his role. Amero made sure to make that clear, but he made sure the team knew roles could change, too.
Take for example Worster, one of the top scorers in the state. When the tournament began, Amero and Worster knew the Mr. Basketball semifinalist would see constant double and triple teams, so he made sure other players knew they had to increase their offense. Senior Derick Ouellette was the leading scorer in the Western Maine tournament, and in the state game, sophomore Matt Turner scored a team-high 16 points.
“In practice, different players will work on post moves. In transition drills we’ll all take different spots so we know what everybody’s doing,” Worster said, adding that Amero’s emphasis on defense was a key to the team’s championship run.
Amero said this team studied and understood basketball more than any he’s had in his 16 seasons at Forest Hills.
“I don’t lie to the kids. I’ll tell the kids, ‘Hey, they’re better than us’, then we find a way to beat them,” Amero said. “There’s a great line of communication. They make my job easier.”
With all five starters back, including three sophomores who started as freshmen, Amero was able to use the team’s experience and expand the playbook. Everything that was new in the 2011-12 season, the ferry rides to play the island schools, the raucous crowd at rival Valley, even the experience of just playing in the tournament at the Augusta Civic Center, all of that was commonplace this season, and the team could just focus on basketball.
“In the state game, we ran six or seven quick hitters in the fourth quarter to get layups,” Amero said. “Maturity was night and day.”
Ouellette said he never played organized basketball before his family moved to Jackman six years ago from New Hampshire.
“(Amero’s) just so good at putting things in perspective, so we all understand it,” Ouellette said. “I’ve learned just about everything I know about basketball from him.”
After all the work the Tigers put in to win the Gold Ball, Amero said he still has not watched the championship game.
“I’m afraid if I watch it, it will turn out to not be real,” Amero joked. “There hasn’t been a day we haven’t talked about the Gold Ball.”