Friday, 04 April 2014 10:36

Leader Of The Pack: Saratoga Alumna Earns EAGL Gymnast Of The Year Award

Written by  Brian Cremo
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Collegiate gymnast Brittni Watkins, a former Blue Streak, strikes a pose complete with the North Carolina State Wolfpack hand symbol, during competition this season. Photo by Greg Mintel. Collegiate gymnast Brittni Watkins, a former Blue Streak, strikes a pose complete with the North Carolina State Wolfpack hand symbol, during competition this season. Photo by Greg Mintel.

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State sophomore gymnast Brittni Watkins set the bar high before the start of her second season with the Wolfpack.

“I looked at all the banners in the beginning of the year before the season started and I picked one,” Watkins said. “I said, ‘I want this one,’ and I picked ‘Gymnast of the Year.’ Everyone was almost doubting me and saying, ‘No, you can’t do that, there’s only been one other person,’ but I said, ‘I don’t care. I want it.’ So I worked really hard in the gym to just go for it.”

Months later, Watkins became the second NC State gymnast ever to earn the East Atlantic Gymnastics League Gymnast of the Year award (Christi Newton, 1996).

Watkins finished the EAGL regular season with the No. 1 Regional Qualifying Score on vault, floor and in the all-around. She led the league on vault with a RQS of 9.890, was first on floor with a RQS of 9.820 and was first in the all-around with a score of 39.071. Nationally, she ranks 15th in the all-around.

She also garnered EAGL Gymnast of the Week honors a record four times this season en route to claiming first-team All-EAGL on vault, beam, bars, floor and the all-around.

“[This season]’s meant the world to me,” Watkins said of reaching such a high goal and realizing that “anything is possible” as she moves forward. “I’ve made some changes in gymnastics and school and it’s all helped me get to my goals.”

Watkins’ road to Division I success started when she was about 3 years old when her mom had her join Stepping Star Gymnastics in Saratoga Springs. Moving a lot between Cambridge and Saratoga Springs with her mom, Watkins spent most of her pre-college education time in Saratoga.

“I fell in love with gymnastics when I realized I was gifted with ability that not many people were given, so I needed to take advantage of it and do the best I could do with it,” Watkins said.

To take advantage of local opportunities, she made the move to World Class Gymnastics in Latham, which Watkins credits to helping her get where she is today—with one of the most memorable individual seasons in school history.

“It was a lot of hard work and dedication,” Watkins said. “Lot of sweat, blood and tears—literally. You have to work through every injury no matter how bad it is.”

When it came down to where she would compete at the collegiate level, Watkins had her decision narrowed down to three schools: West Virginia, Maryland and NC State.

Although Watkins visited NC State three times, it really only took her the first time to realize where she belonged.

“I said, ‘I love [NC State], I want to be here,’” Watkins said. “It was more of a family there than anywhere else. I felt the connection, especially with the coaches and the teammates.”

Head coach Mark Stevenson was “the main guy” who made Watkins feel at home in Raleigh before making the transition to collegiate gymnastics her freshman year.

With the Wolfpack qualifying for their 12th straight National Collegiate Women’s Gymnastics Championships Regional, Stevenson’s teams at NC State have competed in postseason play 26 times in his 34 seasons as head coach.

After finishing third at the EAGL Championships, the Pack are looking to advance past the NCAA regional round. Last year, the team finished fifth at the Ohio State regional.

This year, Watkins and the Pack travel to the closest possible regional site for the program—the University of Georgia.

As six regionals are held throughout the country, with the top two from each advancing, Watkins said she is happy with the location draw and the chance to advance to nationals.

“Last year we had some issues that we worked through and this year I think it has really come out that we’re a strong team and we want to make it to nationals really badly,” Watkins said. “We’re pushing everyone as hard as we can and making sure everyone is healthy to get to our goal. I think it’s going to be tough for us, but I think we have the best chance that we could. If we were to place in a different region, I don’t think we would have had as good of a shot as we do now. Any of those teams could make a mistake and we could have our best meet and that’s what is going to put us there. But we want to compete against the best teams and beat the best teams.”

Those teams are Georgia (No. 6 RQS in the nation), Michigan (No. 7), Central Michigan (No. 18), Ohio State (No. 22) and Rutgers (No. 32).

The Wolfpack are ranked 28th in the country with a RQS of 195.615.

With regional action beginning Saturday at 4 p.m., Watkins will also have the chance to individually advance to nationals. With the top two all-around competitors, as well as the event winners from each regional, advancing with an automatic bid, Watkins has one particular teammate she hopes to compete with if her team does not qualify.

“[Stephanie Ouellette] literally helped me with everything,” Watkins said. “She does all four events with me, so she has my back and I have hers. Before bars she calms down. Before beams she gets me excited. She’s been there for literally every single thing.”

Ouellette was named Senior Gymnast of the Year. Fresh off one of her top performances in the all-around, Ouellette brings years of success and experience. She was the EAGL floor champion last season, a four-time EAGL First Team all-arounder and is someone Watkins has been able to look up to.

Proud to be part of the Wolfpack and a team that wants a trip to nationals just as bad as she does, Watkins said her main goal is for the team to advance as a whole.

“The strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack,” Watkins said. 

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