PETAL, MS (WDAM) - Petal High School opens its baseball season on Saturday and for the first time in 42 years, Larry Watkins will not be in the Panthers’ dugout.
“He’s been a picture in the Petal program for a long time,” said first-year Petal head coach Shane Kelly. “For him not to be at practice is a change. But, I’m hoping that our guys can continue everything that he started.”
How many lives can one man influence?
Watkins has proved that the answer is quite a few during is 42-year coaching run with Petal baseball - 38 years as the head coach.
“Teaching you how to win and what it means to win,” said former Petal baseball player Nate Rolison. “And a lot of that translates off the field – winning in life.”
“Coach Watkins is like a legend in Petal,” said Petal grad Anthony Alford, just moments after the Panthers’ 2010 state championship. “On and off the field he motivates me.”
Rolison and Alford both are two Petal Panthers that realized a kid’s ultimate dream – getting called up to the major leagues. Rolison played one season with the Florida Marlins while Alford made his big-league debut with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2017.
Watkins helped send 17 more players to the MLB draft and 137 to the college ranks.
Then, there’s the coaches he influenced. After three years under Watkins (1991-93), Larry Knight went on to win four state championships at Hattiesburg High and five at Sumrall.
“Baseball was almost a thing like, ‘Alright let’s go out and have batting practice and get ready to play,’” Knight said. “And the fine aspects of the game of teaching, I think Larry was ahead of the game.”
Watkins led Petal to six state titles (1990, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2010, 2011) and compiled a record of 868-268. Certainly, there was strategy to his success but beyond filling out a lineup card, Watkins is well-known for his competitive nature.
Former Oak Grove baseball coach Harry Breland – who won nine state titles in his 37 years – remembers quite a few battles with the Watkins-led Panthers.
“He wanted to win, you could tell that from the beginning,” Breland said. “And all through the game, he was on top of his players, pushing his players. He wanted 100 percent.”
“If you talk to him off the field, he’s just pretty much a gentleman and laid-back kind of guy,” Rolison said. “But he’s pretty fiery inside.”
That fire can be traced back to a young, undersized Watkins playing shortstop and point guard for Northwest Junior High in Meridian. One of his main rivals at Kate Griffin Junior High – Bobby Halford – would go on to coach 34 years of baseball at William Carey.
“One of the best competitors I’ve ever played against,” said Halford, who eventually teamed up with Watkins at Meridian High School. “This guy will beat you in any way he can. He was a dirtbag player and he coached the same way.”
“[Halford] was a lot faster than I was, but I think I stole more bases than he did,” Watkins said. “I’ve been blessed to be around a lot of great people.”
He arrived in Petal in January 1977. Watkins said he had an opportunity to leave for his hometown of Meridian in 1980, but decided to stay in the “Friendly City.”
All of the players, coaches and people that crossed paths with Watkins are glad he stuck around.
“I think Billy Graham said at one time, ‘A coach will influence more young people’s lives in one year than most people will in a lifetime,’” said USM baseball coach Scott Berry. “You look at coach Watkins and the years he put in at Petal High School, you know that he’s been a big, big influence to so, so many.”
“It was an easy job for me because I thought it was the best job in the state,” Watkins said. “I love coaching and I’ve just been blessed to be able to do that.”