TURBEVILLE - While she still has business to take care of in her senior season helping her teammates defend a SCHSL 1A softball state championship, East Clarendon High School shortstop Gracen Watts has already made history before the softball season has even started.
Watts became the first ECHS female student-athlete to sign an NCAA Division I athletic scholarship, signing to continue her softball career at Western Carolina University.
Watts, the daughter of Donnie and ECHS teacher Traci Watts of Mayesville, said her decision came down to finding a school that had a small-town feel similar to her native Turbeville. In the end, that led Watts to Cullowhee, N.C., nestled in the Appalachian mountains and home to the Southern Conference-affiliated Catamounts.
"I really hadn't thought about (venues) to be honest and then my (Lady Lightning travel ball head) coach (John Corn) told me to go to a camp up there. I was supposed to go to a Furman (University) camp, but he was like, 'No, you need to go to Western and check it out,'" said Watts, who had previously attended a camp at Furman. "We drove up and I was like, this is it. It was just beautiful, and there are great people there, great morals and values. They care about who you are as a person and it's more than just a sport to them. It's like a family atmosphere and, of course, the beautiful campus."
While there is plenty of excitement for Watts about the next chapter of her softball life, ECHS head coach Lisa Ard is thankful that the talented infielder returns for one more season as a Lady Wolverine, looking to add a third state championship to the ones Watts won in her seventh-grade and junior seasons.
Ard remembers well the impact Watts had as a seventh-grader joining the varsity team after playing junior varsity for the entire regular season.
"We lost one of our seniors right before state championship (tournament). I put her in the outfield and she batted .600 in the last 10 playoff games," Ard said. "We won that state championship and she's been the shortstop ever since. She's done a super job for us. She's always been a consistent player, a go-to player, the one you want at bat when it come time for a big hit. In fact, the year before last, they (Dixie High School) wouldn't pitch to her and walked her, I think, the whole state championship series."
"I was just kind of in awe my first year in seventh grade," Watts said. "I really didn't expect to move up and play that year and have a role in the game, really. Ever since then I've kind of expected (success), so last year we just kind of expected to win. We're really like a family, and we all have the same goal. We want to go all the way (to a state championship) and we hold each other accountable for it. We go to practice every day wanting to get it done, and we want to stay there until we get it right."
Watts holds a career .478 batting average, with 16 home runs and 107 runs batted in, and owns a .930 fielding percentage entering her senior season. She has been named All-Region and High School Sports Report All-State five times while earning South Carolina Athletic Coaches Association All-State honors two times.
"She's one with a great work ethic. Instead of telling people what to do, she'll go out and show them," Ard said. "She works hard, she's there before and after practice, she's in the batting cages and if anybody needs help with anything she's willing to go out and help them. She just sets the perfect example. She's a great student, great person, one of those kids that just stands out. "It's sad to see it coming to an end."