Old Mill senior Amani Watts hit a basket and heard cheering last Friday.
That would be normal on any given night, but she wasn’t expecting that kind of ovation just yet. Watts lost her count, thinking she still needed a few more points to hit her coveted goal: 1,000 career points. But the extra-loud cheers that washed over the 6-foot-2 center told her all she needed to know.
“It was nice,” she said. “Shocking.”
Watts is the third Anne Arundel player to hit 1,000 points this winter, following South River’s Cash Herndon and Glen Burnie’s Amourie Porter. She’s the third senior to do so this year despite having lost her sophomore season entirely to the pandemic.
But Watts, who’d already faced an uphill climb to her goal in that regard, walked an even rockier path than her peers thanks to her knee injury.
“She was not going to be denied,” Patriots coach Henry Fuller said.
She’d exited her freshman year on top of the county and on the precipice of an even more spectacular sophomore year. Watts, known affectionately by her coaches and teammates as “Baby Shaq,” was named the Capital Gazette 2020 girls basketball Player of the Year. She’d earned a reputation and respect around the league.
It would have been a crushing blow to miss the next season. But the truth is, pandemic or no, she would’ve missed it anyway the moment she tore her ACL.
Fuller, then in his first year coaching Old Mill, didn’t know what to expect when her junior season neared. Plenty of athletes aren’t the same after an ACL tear, no matter how long they had to recover. He could see Watts lost the conditioning she’d had as a freshman star.
Fuller put her to work, running laps on the track, lifting in the weight room and stretching all fall. He instructed Watts to jump to strengthen her knee.
Fuller didn’t want her to come back as she was. He wanted her to be better.
“Because I did expect big things,” Fuller said. “I started following her when she started coming back on AAU circuit. I expected an All-Metro player.”
Watts returned to the Anne Arundel landscape capable and skilled. She amassed 288 points and 176 boards — significantly less than the 342/276 combo she posted as a freshman, but still enough to make her a first-team All-County pick. She nearly led her team to a regional title before losing to Glen Burnie.
But a fear twinged inside of Watts when she returned to high school basketball.
“I was worried I would get hurt again,” she said. “I was worried I wouldn’t get to hit 1,000 points.”
Despite the monster numbers Watts amassed as a rookie, she still had doubts. She’d never understood why she was placed on varsity, despite outscoring every other girl in the county. She’d expected to be relegated to junior varsity, or ride the bench.
For the past two years, Fuller has worked with Watts to expand her role from the one-dimensional post player she’d been. Yes, she thrived with that job; the numbers reflected it. But to get Watts to the next level, the coach knew she needed to be able to do more than “bully ball.”
“When I got to high school, my goal was just to play, even though I didn’t think I was going to. Then, it was to play. Now, it’s to score and dominate.”— OId Mill senior Amani Watts
He tasked her to move to the perimeter more often, to craft and perfect a jump shot. She felt proud of herself when she did. Now, she faces the basket more when she drives instead of just posting. As such, she can draw opposing bigs away. The work is paying off. She’s averaging around 20 points per game and leading her veteran squad in scoring. Her team relies on her to carry them in the post, Fuller said.
Watts says she’s more focused and , stronger than she was.
“When I got to high school, my goal was just to play, even though I didn’t think I was going to,” Watts said. “Then, it was to play. Now, it’s to score and dominate.”
Fuller can still see a spark budding inside of her, waiting to bloom. He just wants her to see it. To put her all into it, to not be afraid to press through her own boundaries. Now she can shoot a jump shot, but before Fuller started with her, Watts didn’t want to attempt one, believing it wouldn’t work.
But he still keeps pushing her. Fuller gives her little challenges constantly for her to work through. He hopes by playoffs, she’s competing on another level.
“If she just puts in just a little bit more work, she can still unlock a whole lot of other things that are still there to be brought out,” Fuller said.