H.S. GIRLS SOCCER: Watkins remains a big part of Southern Columbia's success
The chant starts with an S, then S-O and continues through the spelling of Southern.
In the center of the group of jumping and shouting girls is a four-year starter, the emotional leader and perhaps the luckiest girl on the team.
When Southern Columbia runs onto the field at Hersheypark Stadium at 5 p.m. today to play Greensburg Central Catholic in the PIAA Class A state championship game, Jess Watkins will have to stop short of the white line. Still, it's a drastically different place from where she was little more than a month ago.
On Oct. 3, Watkins started in goal just like she had for the previous three-plus years. She
led the chant before that game and took her place on the field, but Watkins' season ended that night in Hughesville when she was kicked in the head and suffered a fractured skull.
"At first I didn't realize my season was over," Watkins said after the Tigers beat Tulpehocken Tuesday.
"My mentality was that I was going to get over this and get better before the season is over. Then slowly as I got more information about the injury, I knew that my season really was over and how serious it was. I shifted into how can I help the team."
By the slimmest of margins, she didn't need surgery and was back on the sidelines at home a week later to witness a program-defining win over Loyalsock. She led the chant again and was back with teammates.
"Being in the hospital was the worst thing, knowing that I was really done, and I felt that I wasn't really part of the team anymore," she said.
"But as I came out and I was with the team and coming to games and practices, I started becoming more like a coach. I felt more like a coach than someone who just got hurt and was on the sidelines. Going from a four-year starter to sitting on the bench was really hard at first, but I overcame it."
To look at her and hear her yell during games, it would be easy to see why Watkins wants to be on the field. She's part of the close-knit group of seniors at the forefront of this push through the playoffs.
"What she went through, to see her here, you wouldn't know anything was wrong with her," Southern Columbia head coach Derek Stine said. "And that's frustrating for Jess. She feels like there's nothing wrong and she could be playing this game."
With Watkins on the bench, there was a void of experience in the net for the first time in years. She was the goalkeeper the last time the Tigers were in the state playoffs and had been in all those battles with Loyalsock and Warrior Run. But now she has a new role - coach.
Watkins is a strict taskmaster for her one-time protege and replacement Abbey Herr.
"She's spent some time with Abbey, but her support in these games is huge. You could hear her from wherever you were. She's loud and she's supportive," Stine said.
"But, I'll be honest, she's very blunt with Abbey. You hear saying, 'You did this wrong, fix it.' She's very supportive in a good way, but brutal.
"She's been in some huge games. She said to the girls at halftime that she would give anything she could and she played with everything she had."
The lessons and inspiration have been invaluable and seem to be paying off. Herr has played better in each of the 10 games since Watkins' injury. That includes five shutouts.
"For a while, I couldn't be at practice, so I couldn't help Abbey at all," Watkins said. "Now, I don't want to baby her. I want to be on her and if she does something wrong, I want to tell her about it. I would never put her down. I want her to do her best because I want to win, too."
Win, the Tigers have. They haven't lost since Watkins' injury. That's a reflection on exactly how close this bunch is, taking a teammate on the ride of a lifetime.
And Watkins is clear-headed about what this means to her.
"Words can't describe this," she said. "Most people would be upset because they can't be part of it on the field, but I'm so proud of them. I never thought we would get this far, and then when I got hurt I didn't know what to think, but it's awesome.
"I'm glad I can still be a part of the team and be cheering. I'm so lucky to be walking. I try to look on the bright side."
So listen close before the Tigers take the field and one voice stands out.
Jess Watkins has left her imprint on this Tigers' team.