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Ex-Hillcrest Star Stepping Up At Army

This story originally appeared in the Tuscaloosa News on Mach 12, 2010, and was written by Coy Slavik

Army sophomore catcher J.T. Watkins never has to look very far to get some expert advice on his performance on the baseball diamond.

The former all-state high school player from Hillcrest just has to pick up a phone and call his father, Danny Watkins, who is a scout for the Boston Red Sox.

“I’ll call him now and then to get some advice, but I think he knows I’m harder on myself than anybody else,” said Watkins, who has been a starter for the Black Knights since arriving at West Point. “He doesn’t have to say too much. He has seen me play more than anybody else, so he knows what I’m thinking. It’s great to talk to him on the phone after a game because he calms me down after a loss or a win.”

Watkins batted .256 with 28 RBIs last year as a freshman in helping Army win the Patriot League title and advance to the NCAA Austin Regional Final.

Watkins went 2-for-4 with three RBIs in the Black Knights’ 14-10 loss to No. 1 Texas in the regional title game. Texas overcame a 10-6 deficit in the ninth inning to pull out the victory and end Army’s season one victory away from the Super Regionals.

Watkins is one of six returning everyday starters for the Black Knights this season.

Army also returned 10 of its 11 pitchers from last year and was a consensus preseason pick to defend its Patriot league title.

The Black Knights started this season by winning of two of three, but wintry weather forced the team to go 13 days without playing a game.

“It was rough taking two weeks off and then starting right back up again,” Watkins said. “We couldn’t get out of here because of all the snow.”

Army (4-2) won two of three against North Carolina-Greensboro last week and will be in Lakeland and Winter Haven, Fla., the next week to play Long Island University, Akron, Yale, Eastern Illinois, Bradley (twice), and Ohio State.

“So far, the team has started off pretty well,” Watkins said. “We’re a lot farther along than we were at this point last year. We have a lot more experience on the team. The pitching staff is throwing a lot better than last year because we have a lot more veteran guys.”

Watkins is batting only .158 with two RBIs so far, but hopes the Florida climate helps him raise his offensive numbers before heading back to West Point.

“I’m getting off to a pretty slow start,” Watkins said. “But I’m pretty sure I will heat up pretty soon.”

Watkins, who helped Hillcrest win the Class 6A state title as a junior, said juggling athletics, academics and his cadet training has not been easy.

“This is definitely one of the most challenging things I have ever done,” Watkins said. “Being a student-athlete in high school is nothing compared to being a student-athlete in college and then you add to that being a cadet. It definitely has its tough times. I have taken at least 20 hours every semester since I’ve been at West Point. I try to get as much work done as possible when we’re on the road.”

Watkins, who was named the Patriots League’s Rookie of the Week twice last season, said he would like to pursue a professional baseball career. Army rules allow athletes to go pro after graduation.

“It’s always been a dream of mine,” Watkins said. “Honestly, I don’t care what uniform it would be.”

But for now, Watkins wants to help get the Black Knights back in the NCAA tournament and closer to a College World Series berth.

“I feel we have the potential to get back to the regionals,” Watkins said. “I also think the team is willing to work hard enough to get back there and even make it to the Super Regional. It’s going to take a lot of hard work. We have a target on our backs from last year. The Patriot League is not going to just roll over and let us win the conference.”

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