KNIGHTDALE — Kenny Watkins has coached football and wrestling and taught physical education at Knightdale High School. This spring, he’s adding softball to his résumé.
Although he’s never coached a nine-girl crew, Watkins does not consider the softball diamond uncharted territory.
“My father was a softball coach as I was growing up,” he said. “So I kind of grew up around softball fields.”
That doesn’t mean Watkins expects an immediate channeling of his father’s softball coaching know-how. Instead, he anticipates an arduous transition as the Knights work to turn on-field chemistry into wins.
“The biggest challenge will be keeping the girls motivated,” Watkins said. “Last year, they didn’t do quite as well as they wanted to, as a team.”
Last season, the Knights claimed just three conference contests and finished behind every team in the Greater Neuse River 4A except for winless Smithfield-Selma.
The newly minted head coach sees change around the corner, though. He claims to have already noticed a difference in the early-goings of 2014.
“This year, the girls are already buying in,” Watkins said. “They’ve got their expectations set.”
Those expectations are to field a fundamentally sound defensive team, according to Watkins. Before they can get to that point, the Knights must first overcome a great deal of inexperience.
In addition to its rookie head coach, the Knightdale varsity softball team will feature four freshmen and only one starting senior. That’s why Watkins is stressing the importance of team chemistry.
“Some of these girls haven’t played together, so it’s important that we get out there and get that chemistry going,” he said.
The Knights’ one senior in the starting lineup, however, is a valuable one. Josie Sargent is a natural center fielder, but she’s not confined to the outfield.
“I can plug her in anywhere and she’s going to fill in and not miss a beat,” Watkins said. “She’s that kind of player. She leads by example … and we’ve gotten a lot of good leadership from her.”
Watkins also credits his class of three juniors for their contributions as leaders.
Tryout-delaying snowstorms and practice-cancelling downpours have stunted the Knights’ early season progression, like they have for most local teams. The upperclassmen have had limited opportunities to interact with the rest of their teammates.
“We couldn’t get on the field,” Watkins said. “We’ve made do with what we’ve had, so we’re in the same boat as everyone else around us. The girls understand it.”
It’s a less than ideal situation for a relatively young and inexperienced team like Knightdale, which was left with no time to spare.
The Knights would have preferred an extra week of practice; instead, they hit the ground running on Feb. 28 in their season opener at Corinth-Holders.
“It’s all business, and they’ve responded well so far,” Watkins said.
While Watkins insists his players have been around the game long enough to simply roll with the punches, he acknowledges the challenges of his team’s missed practice time and general inexperience at the varsity level.
But he’s looking optimistically at the season ahead – particularly the games against East Wake at home on April 8 and on the road in the regular season finale on May 8.
“I’m a competitor,” Watkins said. “I want our girls to be able to go out to eat in town and wear their Knightdale softball shirt in front of them and say, ‘We won that game at East Wake.’ ”