Ten months removed from a 7A title, the Crestview basketball team looks a whole lot different, but the Bulldogs are working through it.

CRESTVIEW — In 17 years of coaching, Greg Watson can’t remember starting a freshman for any extended length of time on his varsity teams.


Now 10 months removed from leading a senior-laden Crestview boys basketball squad to 26 wins and a 7A state title — the first for the Bulldogs and Okaloosa County in 34 years — Watson has two freshman not only in his starting five, but also leading the team in scoring.


The drop off has been steep and understandable. Losing eight seniors to graduation, including the entire starting lineup, is not easy to overcome by any stretch of the imagination, but the Bulldogs (2-11 overall) are working through it, and Watson relishes the opportunity to build from the ground up.


“I kinda knew that we would be a little young and not as talented, but it’s worth it,” he told the Daily News. “It’s kinda reenergized me as far as coaching. It’s not always easy, but it’s a new challenge.”


Thus far, that challenge has included 10 straight losses to start the year, two senior players quitting midseason and a suspension for senior Mason Cooper, a 6-foot-4 forward who was instrumental off the bench during the past season’s playoff run.


Still, Crestview has had more than a few reasons for optimism in recent weeks.


The Bulldogs capped 2019 with a 56-52 victory against Pace on Dec. 30 — their first of the season — and followed up with a 53-48 road victory against Laurel Hill just four days later. Tuesday brought with it a 35-34 loss to Milton, snapping that short-lived win streak, but the Bulldogs held the Panthers to just two points in fourth quarter.


Meanwhile, freshman Caleb Kyzer and Obian Howard — the pair leading Crestview in scoring with 10.3 and 9.2 points per game, respectively — continue to show rapid growth, senior Prince Roper, a transfer from El Paso, has solidified the Bulldogs’ inside presence and Cooper is expected back on Jan. 17 against Niceville.


All seemingly disparate pieces, Crestview’s players have noticed the definitive uptick in their play as they have grown together.


“The record’s been bad, but I’ve seen a lot of things that can be fixed, that can be improved, and now we’re starting to get better,” Roper said. “We’ve won two games; hopefully we pile on more.”


Averaging 8.8 points and five rebounds per game, Roper has been in Florida for less than a month. He enrolled at Crestview in mid-December after moving in with his uncle. His father, who serves in the Army, was being transferred to Georgia, then overseas to Germany.


“I did not want to go to Germany,” Roper said. “Middle of my senior year, I couldn’t do it.”


Now Roper finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to mentor younger players while he himself navigates a foreign environment.


“It’s definitely hard ’cause I don’t know a lot of these guys, but they work hard, we work hard,” he said. “Everybody’s all cool, and it just makes everything easier. It makes it easier for us to gel and everything.”


Likewise, senior Chris Johns’ leadership experience has also been invaluable to a team with five underclassman.


A Dandy Dozen selection on Crestview’s football team, Johns spends some of his free time helping coach youth football with the Hub City Youth Association; shepherding players making the transition from middle school to Crestview’s varsity team is not all that dissimilar.


“I’m just trying to be a leader for ’em,” Johns said. “The freshman we have starting, when they’re seniors, they’re gonna be the real deal. I just want to see ’em go far when it’s their time.”


Averaging 5.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per night, Johns often spends practices and games offering assistance, advice and encouragement whether he’s on the court or not.


“If I had a son, I would want him to be just like Chris Johns,” Watson said. “He’s not the most talented basketball player, but he does everything right. He takes coaching, he’s ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘No, sir,’ he takes charges, he boxes out, he dives on the floor.


“He’s the ultimate leader on and off the court.”


That said, Kyzer, Howard and the rest of Crestview’s young core have also improved of their own volition. The dynamic freshman duo in particular has proven insatiable when it comes to basketball.


“The biggest thing with those two is they love basketball and they work at it,” Watson said “They’re always texting me, ‘Coach, will you open the gym?’ They love the game, which makes it fun for me, and they’ve improved greatly from Game 1 through Game 13.”


Only 5-9, Kyzer poured in a season-high 17 points on 50% shooting in the Bulldogs’ win against Pace, and Howard, just 5-7, had 26 points on 57% shooting in a loss to Lighthouse Christian.


“They’re just straight scorers that can shoot off the dribble, pick and roll — I love doing pick and rolls with them because it’s just a threat with me driving to the hole and their shooting ability,” Johns said. “It’s one of our go-to things. They’re just good players and I see a lot of potential in ’em.”


And Johns believes wholeheartedly Crestview also has the potential to finish strong with 11 games left on the schedule.


“This is a young team,” he said. “We’re trying to get ’em ready for the future, but with Prince and when Mason comes back, I think we can turn the season around with district play coming up.”