WATSONVILLE — Tied game. One minute left. A trip to the state championship on the line.
Those are the moments that numerous kids dream of when their head hits the pillow after a long day of practice. They shut their eyes and imagine putting their teammates on their back and carrying them to a championship. They visualize hitting the last-second shot and holding their arms up high as their teammates surround them and the crowd goes wild. They envision being the hero — the player that everyone depends on and looks to when the game is on the line.
For most, those dreams are just that.
For Chase Watkins, it’s reality.
The St. Francis High junior not only excelled in big games and clutch moments but sought them out. Whether it was on the basketball court or on the pitcher’s mound, Watkins wanted the ball in his hands when it was winning time.
When no one else wanted to take the big shot, he nailed it.
When he was forced to guard the other team’s best player, he shut them down.
When his team needed a spark, he exploded.
Watkins was in his element when the seconds were ticking away or the bases were loaded with two-outs. Everyone else was nervous — some even panicking. Watkins? He was just having fun.
“Chase has fun with life and he has fun with athletics,” St. Francis head basketball coach Ed Kelly said in a phone interview. “He doesn’t shy away from the big shot. He doesn’t fear the big moments. He likes those moments. He’s just out there having fun and that’s why he looks so natural in those moments — when the game’s on the line.”
At home in the big moment, a champion when the clock hit zeros and a leader to his teammates, the Pajaronian is naming Watkins our Male Student-Athlete of the Year.
Measuring in at 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds and gifted with raw explosive athleticism from his mother, Kim, and father, Brad, whom were collegiate stars in swimming and football, respectively, Watkins was a human highlight reel while throwing down emphatic windmill dunks on the hardwood and hitting bombs over the fence.
His brilliance helped the basketball team win a trio of titles, including its first-ever California Interscholastic Federation Northern California championship, and guided the baseball squad to the Central Coast Section semifinals. He did all that while holding a grade point average above 3.5.
His natural talent opened the door to success but his coaches and peers said Watkins’ hard work, dedication and competitiveness are what set him apart from other athletes.
“He wants the baseball in big games,” St. Francis head baseball coach Kenny Nakagawa said in a phone interview. “He loves to compete and he loves to work. The kid doesn’t quit… He’s one of those guys that feels like he’s fighting for everything that he gets. He goes out and earns it.”
Before this school year, Watkins did not get many looks from college hoops or baseball programs so he entered every game with a giant chip on his shoulder. He tried to show scouts, coaches and opposing teams that he was the best player on the court or field on every occasion. Yet he managed to play with a levity uncommon for someone so focused on winning. That approach represented his outlook on life.
Watkins’ older brother, Sean, died in 2008 after a two-year battle with cancer. Watkins was only 8 when Sean passed and didn’t quite understand the situation. But as the years passed by, his mother helped put that family tragedy, life and sports into perspective.
Sean’s toughness in the face of cancer inspired Watkins’ ultra-competitive attitude, which Nakagawa describes as a “bulldog” mentality, and his death taught him of the fragility of life and that there’s more to it than just sports. Those lessons have kept him calm and collected in tough moments.
“When I’m on the mound and a guy hits a bomb off me it’s not the end of the world,” said Watkins, who wears the No. 22 and also sports a cross around his neck for his late brother — Sean’s birthday was on Oct. 22. “In a sense, it also motivates me a lot because he was such a fighter. My mom says he would always say, ‘Iron is turned into steel in the furnace of adversity.’ He’s been my inspiration… and that helps me just go out there and leave it all out there.”
In the winter, Watkins led St. Francis to its most successful basketball season in program history. The Sharks completed a perfect Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League season, won the CCS Division V title and captured the CIF NorCal Division V crown, which also earned them a spot in the CIF Division V state championship.
Watkins, who was named a First Team All-SCCAL selection, averaged 17.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game and played some of his best basketball in the playoffs. He consistently led the Sharks in scoring during their 23-game winning streak, which was a program record, and also took up the responsibility of defending the other team’s top scorer.
On top of that, Watkins also bailed out the Sharks with several big buckets in fourth quarters. None, however, were as big as his go-ahead 3-pointer with one minute left in the CIF NorCal Division V championship game against Elliot Christian, of Lodi.
The Shark Tank was overflowing with thousands of fans yelling louder than a jet engine and the season was in the balance.
“And he didn’t think twice,” Kelly said of Watkins. “He caught it, squared up and took the shot like it was a pickup game on a Saturday morning.”
The Sharks’ dream season ended with a heartbreaking 47-46 loss to Rolling Hills Prep, of San Pedro, in the CIF Division V state championship game but Watkins’ year was far from finished.
Just a week later, he and fellow seniors Ruben Ibarra and Joseph Kovacs joined the baseball team, which was in dire need of reinforcements. In his first league game, Watkins went 5-for-5 and hit for the cycle with eight RBIs and four scored runs.
He batted in the heart of the Sharks’ lineup and was nearly unhittable on the bump. The tall left-handed pitcher threw an 88-mph fastball, slider and changeup.
“And he could throw either one for a strike at any time of the at-bat,” Nakagawa said.
The Sharks won three of their last four SCCAL contests to earn a CCS Division II playoff berth and Watkins tossed a gem — 6 1/3 innings of four-hit ball — in the first round to kickstart their run to the semifinals.
Watkins earned a First Team All-SCCAL selection as a pitcher and garnered Player of the Year consideration.
“What a great year,” Nakagawa said. “You look at everything he did for us and the time he came in was perfect — right when we needed a shot in the arm. I think the success from basketball carried over to baseball. He really had no break.”
Watkins took a short break following the end of the school year but returned to the diamond soon after and has continued to improve. Recently, he wowed college and pro scouts at the NorCal World Series and the MLB Prospect Development Pipeline Premier. Several NCAA Division I Pac-12 and Big West baseball programs showed interest after seeing him compete against the best in Northern California and a handful extended scholarship offers his way.
But Watkins, who was also invited to try out for the prestigious Area Code Games later this month, said he’s still weighing his options.
There is a strong possibility he could be drafted by an MLB squad after his senior year of high school.
Watkins said he wants to play sports at the collegiate level and, eventually, become a pro athlete. But those are just minor checkboxes in his master life plan.
“The ultimate goal is to live a good life and be happy,” he said. “We’re people a lot longer than we’re sports players. But I love the competitive arena. I want to be around it as long as I can.”
Male Student-Athlete of the Year finalists
Danner Pardue, Aptos, Sr. >> Aptos High’s senior two-sport athlete brought the speed for the Mariners. On the football field Pardue was a threat to score every time he touched the ball and on the track he was the fastest the county had to offer. He ran for 577 yards and eight touchdowns on just 67 touches, helping Aptos to its sixth straight SCCAL championship. He was named an SCCAL First Team selection. As a sprinter in the spring, Pardue won SCCAL titles in the 100- and 200-meters and advanced to the California Interscholastic Federation State Meet in the latter. His league championships powered Aptos to its third SCCAL team title in track over the last four years.
Joey Riccabona, Aptos, Sr. >> The Aptos High senior was the top football player in the county and wasn’t too bad on the basketball court either. Riccabona measured in at just 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds but was a giant on the gridiron for the Mariners, breaking nearly all of the program’s receiving records, playing quarterback, starring at defensive back and earning SCCAL MVP honors en route to the program’s sixth straight league title. In the winter, Riccabona was a lockdown defender for the basketball team, which finished second in the SCCAL regular season and advanced to the CCS playoffs.
Max Meltzer, Aptos, Sr. >> The senior Mariner stunned the CCS and put his name up with the best golfers to ever come from the county. Meltzer, who will compete for Division I San Jose State in the fall, became only the third player from Santa Cruz County to win the individual CCS title by firing a 4-under par 67 and then winning a one-hole playoff at the Laguna Seca Golf Ranch in Monterey. He was also named the SCCAL MVP after leading the Mariners to the team title.
Jackson Collins, MVC, Sr. >> It was impossible to not notice Monte Vista Christian’s senior two-sport star. Collins earned First Team Monterey Bay League Gabilan division honors in both football and baseball while leading the Mustangs to the CCS playoffs in each sport. In the fall, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder starred at outside linebacker on defense and was a big red zone threat in the passing game. He led the team in tackles and sacks, while also returning a pair of interceptions for scores. On offense, he caught four touchdowns and was third on the team in receptions. On the baseball diamond in the spring, Collins paced the Mustangs in batting average (.425), hits (28), RBIs (30), scored runs (20), doubles (7) and home runs (5). Along with his MBL-G First Team selection in baseball, he was also selected to the All-CCS First Team by Prep2Prep.
Ruben Ibarra, St. Francis, Sr. >> The Sharks’ senior two-sport athlete was a key cog in the success of the basketball and baseball teams. Ibarra started at center for the NorCal champion basketball team and served as the starting first baseman and cleanup hitter for the baseball team, which advanced to the CCS semifinals. He was a Second Team SCCAL selection in each sport.
Abel Pena, Watsonville, Jr. >> Watsonville High’s junior star wrestler brought an end to a near-decade-long drought. Wrestling at 120 pounds, Pena became the first Wildcat to win a CCS title in nine years, beating Fremont High’s Angelo Reyes via a 7-0 decision. It was the exclamation point of a stellar season for Pena, who went 3-2 at the CIF state meet. He also won the MBL title and Apple Cider Classic title, while finishing on the podium at MidCals and the California Coast Wrestling Classic.