South Charlotte

Athlete of the week: Versatile Knight helps team aim for state volleyball title

Caitlin Watkins sat on a bench outside the Ardrey Kell locker room with a big bag of ice wrapped tightly around a throbbing, sprained ankle.

While you could see the physical pain on her face and hear it in her voice, mentally and emotionally Watkins may have never felt better. She had just helped lead the Knights' volleyball team to thrilling 3-2 win over rival Providence to win the Southwestern 4A tournament championship at Rocky River.

Watkins was named the tournament's most outstanding player.

Providence was undefeated in the conference, including two victories over Ardrey Kell, but the Knights won when it mattered most overcoming 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to claim the title.

"I can't even explain how bad we wanted to win this match," Watkins said. "Coach Bell told us to play every play like it was our last point and that is what we did. Our whole team was all heart."

Watkins, 16, has shown a lot of versatility this season, playing three different positions, outside hitter, right side hitter and middle blocker, at different times because of injuries to her teammates. The Ardrey Kell junior has even switched positions during the course of a game, just to help her team.

"Caitlin has done a little bit of everything for this team and that is just the type of player she is," coach Zoe Bell said. "Really, she can play well anywhere on the outside or in the middle and be a very effective player."

Watkins has been a standout since she arrived at Ardrey Kell in 2009, when she made the varsity team. She started most of the year on a Knight team, led by former star Samantha Gostling (now on the Virginia Tech volleyball team), that went to the state finals before losing to Greenville Rose.

Watkins had a team-best 265 kills last year for her 20-8 Ardrey Kell team, earning all-SW4A honors, all South Charlotte News and 3rd-team All-Observer honors in the process.

This year, Watkins came into the season expecting to be a key part on an Ardrey Kell team that again has state championship ambitions.

With standout teammates like Rachel Eppley, Cameron McDuffie, Emma Vail and Caroline Zybala, Watkins was expecting to do big things in the middle.

But injuries to some of the key players at different times this season (most recently McDuffie) have forced Watkins to move from her natural middle position to the outside hitter slot.

"I don't really care what position I play," Watkins said. "I just want to be out on the court, helping my team."

Watkins has helped her team win 25 games going into the playoffs and has registered more than 270 kills, 70 aces and 27 blocks.

Watkins, who had 10 kills in the championship game against Providence, has had big games against good teams, recording 20 kills in a win over Charlotte Catholic and 11 aces in a key victory over Ronald Reagan High.

A major part of Watkins' ability stems from her height and length. At 6-foot-1, Watkins has 91-inch standing reach and is imposing on the move and in the air.

"Caitlin has made some big plays for us and is becoming a very good player," Bell said, who also coaches her club team, Carolina Juniors Volleyball. "But I think she's just coming on. I think she is going to get a lot better."

Watkins hopes this is also just the beginning for her team this year.

"We have to play like we did (against Providence) every night and be more consistent," Watkins said. "You can't take any team lightly. We have to do all the small things and then the bigger things will happen for us."