Just two weeks after capturing the Virginia Class 6 girls' state title in cross-country, Colonial Forge's Mckenzi Watkins finalized her college commitment, signing with James Madison University, the school that was first to show interest in her distance running abilities.
"I really wanted to stay focused on the schools that stuck around with me before winning states," Watkins told the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star on Signing Day.
After winning States, Watkins found that her star had risen as schools such as Virginia Tech began to reach out. However, she remained committed to JMU, and finalized the bond with a signature.
Watkins' life story has been chronicled here before. She is the daughter of the late Brian Watkins, a former distance standout at Potomac High, who died in a tragic ATV 4-wheel vehicle accident in October 2000, just 27 days after his daughter was born. Last spring, Mckenzi, who only started running competitively last year, competed in the 3200 event at the track meet that bears her father's name.
And while her progress as a distance runner has been astounding, Watkins was not quite prepared for the turn of events at States.
"This is mind-blowing!" exclaimed the senior, standing on the podium to receive her victors' plaque. "I was like 20th (in 19:41) last year. I didn't think I could get to first in one year."
However, in a few moments of reflection, Watkins was able to break down her race. "Yeah, I was very surprised because Julia (Ghiselli, Annandale's sophomore sensation) led the whole thing. I wanted to stay within a certain distance."
Along with West Springfield's Chase Kappeler, Piper Dean of Yorktown and Natalie Bardach of Marshall, the group stayed within striking range of Ghiselli, letting her break the wind on a cold and windy day. Eventually, the patience of the trailing threesome paid off.
"At the end, she started to die a little. I knew that I had to go, like.... NOW."
With her visualization of winning the race complete, Watkins darted down the homestretch and pulled away to a time of 18:49, five seconds ahead of Kappeler, and seven in front of Bardach. Dean finished fourth in 18:59, while Ghiselli slipped to fifth in 19:04, a virtual tie with Eva Smith-Perry of Washington-Lee, who was awarded sixth.
Although West Springfield won the team title, Watkins was equally excited about her teammates performance, as the Eagles finished in the runner-up spot with 104 points, 50 behind the Spartans.
"We were really going today," said Watkins. "We were about fifth last year. I was so happy to see the team doing so well."
The Spartans saw Lillian Stephens, Amy Herrema, Katie Orchard and Anna Bock finish in the top-23 to spark their winning effort.
However, for Watkins, there was still one more surprise as she dropped 25 seconds off her state-winning time to place 13th in last weekend's Nike cross Nationals in Cary, NC. Her time of 18:23.9 led the "Forge" team to a tenth-place finish, two spots behind West Springfield, who was eighth with 227 points.