Basketball / Sports

For Love of the Game

One in 10 female NCAA athletes will tear their ACL.

The UCSB women’s basketball team has exactly 10 members. Looking around the gym, that means statistically one is likely to have torn it.

As basketball ranks second on the list in terms of the highest number of ACL injuries in women’s sports, it’s no surprise that one member has.

In fact, Clair Watkins has torn her ACL not once, but twice.

Rewind back to Watkins’ first year of college at Vanderbilt University. The Charlotte, NC native was a top-notch recruit, coming off a 4A State Championship, a McDonald’s All-American nomination and was named North Carolina Female Athlete of the Year by the Charlotte Observer during her senior year.

But at her first ever practice as a freshman, disaster struck.

“It was the first day of practice and we were just running a full court drill,” Watkins said. “I looked over my shoulder to catch the ball, and I just landed completely straight legged at a really weird angle.”

Done for the year. Just like that. Watkins had torn her right ACL.

The injury was in typical fashion for an athlete — a noncontact play where a sudden deceleration or landing maneuver put the leg in a vulnerable position. While ACL injuries most often occur in team sports, 80 percent involve little or no contact with another athlete.

Watkins redshirted that year and returned to the court as a sophomore, where she made her college debut. As a redshirt freshman, Watkins began to find her stride on the court. Early in the season, she tallied three blocks against University of South Carolina Upstate and four steals against Florida, both of which remain career-highs today.

Against Sam Houston State in late November, Watkins recorded a career-high 12 points on 6-10 shooting and in early December, she posted a career-high at the time of eight rebounds versus Denver.

“It was tough, because I was technically a freshman,” Watkins said. “I had a year sitting out, so I was really rusty. I love the team there and it was fun being part of the program, but basketball-wise it was rough because I was still getting my feet back under me. I had to keep up with fast-pace SEC basketball.”

During her redshirt sophomore year, however, Watkins’ was dealt another tough blow. Leading up to the Tennessee game on Jan. 24, Watkins was at practice and was hit on the side of the knee setting a screen.

The result was another ACL tear. This time it was the left one, leaving Watkins sidelined the remainder of the season once again.

“At that point, I’m like, ‘Wait, what is going on? This can’t be happening,’” Watkins said. “It was so surreal. I don’t think I even cried. I cried over the first one a bit because I was disappointed, but the second one, I didn’t even cry because I was like, ‘man, alright, just going to do rehab again’ and it was second-nature to me.”

Sitting out with her second ACL tear in two years, Watkins realized that the old saying that everything happens for a reason might have some truth to it.

“The second [ACL tear] was actually a blessing in disguise, because I realized that my time at Vandy was over and that I did what I needed to do there,” Watkins said. “I sat back and thought about my options and realized I wanted to go somewhere else and have a new experience. Oddly enough, if I hadn’t hurt this knee, I don’t think I’d be here right now.”

Now, Watkins is here at UCSB, but not as an undergrad. She currently studies at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, working towards her Master’s in Education.

Simply because she’s not an undergrad doesn’t mean Watkins’ basketball career is over though. After rehabbing and twice surviving the injury known as “the commonest cause of the ex-athlete,” Watkins is back on the court and playing for the Gauchos with her two remaining years of NCAA eligibility.

“She’s a lot like [center Kirsten Tilleman from last year] in that they love the game so much that they want to have a positive experience through it,” Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “With Clair, she wants to have fun again. It’s hard for her to even remember the high school days where that’s where her enjoyment of the game was. Her mom told me when she was here that that was the first time she’d seen [Clair] smile on the floor in a couple years. That means a lot.”

Not on the roster to start the season, Watkins was taking extension classes during fall quarter. After she was admitted into the university, Watkins was cleared immediately by the NCAA to play.

Joining the team midseason in late December put Watson at a fairly sizable disadvantage: a new style, new teammates and the expectation of serving as the team’s inside presence. At 6’4’’, Watkins brought height to a guard-driven team lacking in size and experience in the paint.

“I definitely learned something from each [knee injury]. I’m definitely more appreciative when I do get to play,” Watkins said. “[Being back on the court] is a lot of fun. It’s a lot different than at Vanderbilt with different coaching styles, but I love it. And I get to walk to practice between palm trees with mountain[s] on one side and ocean on the other. It’s paradise out here.”

So far, in her 15 games for Santa Barbara, Watkins has averaged 5.1 points and 5.5 rebounds, which is second on the team. She also averages 0.9 steals and leads the team with 1.0 block per game.

While the statistics don’t show a player ready to dominate the Big West, Mitchell knows Watkins needs time, not only to adjust to UCSB’s ways, but find her game again after not being on the court in nearly a year due to the ACL injury.

“Sometimes the game happens really fast when you haven’t played for a long time. There’s nothing you can do to emulate that playing time on the floor,” Mitchell said. “But there’s no pressure; she needs to have fun and finish her career like she deserves to. I still think Clair will leave here being one of the best players in the Big West. Just like Sweets [Underwood] did, she could easily average a double-double every night.”

A glimpse of the Watkins that caught so many recruiters’ eyes as a freshman was on display this past weekend. While any basketball fan could see Watkins had the skill, it’d yet to show up in the box score.

Saturday at Cal State Fullerton, Watkins shined, earning the first double-double of her career. She scored 10 points and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds, giving UCSB the presence inside it’d been missing all year long.

“When basketball has been tough for her the way it has for her the last two years, it’s easy for her to get down on herself,” Mitchell said. “We’ve worked really hard on keeping her confident and reminding her every day that she could dominate in this conference. She’s an amazing talent, and we have to make sure she continues to work on her game and consistently gives us those numbers every night because there’s no reason she can’t.”

 

A version of this article appeared on page 13 of Feb. 26th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.

Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.

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