By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When Blair Watson was growing up – albeit in rapid fashion – the first sport she participated in was not basketball.
“Tennis was my first sport,” said the talented Nutley High School girls’ basketball player. “I started with tennis in third grade.”
So then basketball was second, right? Not quite.
“I started playing soccer when I visited my grandmother here,” Watson said, “I liked soccer a lot. I guess that was fifth grade. Soccer was a lot of fun.”
Soccer was so much fun for Watson that she stuck with it as she began Nutley High. “At first, I thought soccer was going to be my sport,” Watson said. “But I started with basketball in eighth grade and saw how good I was at it. Once I saw how good I was in basketball, I knew that was going to take me to the next level.”
Watson grew to stand at 6 feet tall, so she certainly drew her share of attention and interest.
But she never dreamed about where her basketball talents would take her.
“It was pretty crazy,” Watson said of the attention she received from major colleges, even when she was only a freshman. “I didn’t expect the kind of things that was happening. But I then realized that if I kept working at it, I could get some really good (NCAA) Division I schools to look at me.”
Watson said that she was blown away by one of the first letters she received from Stanford.
“That was like my big ‘Whoa!’ moment,” Watson said about the letter from Stanford. “It was unbelievable.”
Watson then soon received a letter and invitation from the University of Maryland.
“I only visited Maryland once and as soon as I got on the campus, I said, ‘This is like my home,’” Watson said. “I liked everything about it. The coaches all cared about me just about as much as my Mom. I wanted to be at a school where everyone cared about me. I got done with the visit and I called my AAU coach (John Griff of the New Jersey Panthers) and said, ‘Okay, when can I commit?’ Right there, I was ready.”
Although she had yet to enter her junior year at Nutley, Watson gave a verbal commitment to coach Brenda Frese and the Terrapins right away. There was no need to wait out a recruiting process. Watson knew she wanted to go to the home of the 2006 NCAA champions.
“It was definitely a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” Watson said. “I knew right away that Maryland was it. It definitely took a lot of stress out of the way.”
But as the season began, the pressures of being a big-time Division I recruit got in the way. Teams were double and sometimes triple-teaming Watson, especially after she began the season with a 40-point explosion against Weequahic.
“It’s definitely been frustrating, but I’ve learned ways to deal with the frustration,” Watson said. “I’m dealing with it better. I have to say my teammates have been helping me out in teaching me that acting out my frustration is not the smart thing to do.”
Nutley head coach Larry Mitschow, who first met Watson when she was in sixth grade, can see the pressure building up inside Watson.
“You can see the frustration a little,” Mitschow said. “She has the bulls’ eye on her back and teams are surrounding her every time she touches the ball. I think in the beginning she was looking to shoot too much, because she thought she had to do everything. But the chemistry on the team is so much better. We’re moving the ball around so much better.”
The result has been five wins in their last seven games, with the only losses coming at the hands of Montclair, including one in the quarterfinals of the Essex County Tournament Saturday.
However, last week, in another game against Montclair, Watson exploded for 31 points. She also had 13 points in a win over perennial power Mount St. Dominic.
For her efforts, Watson has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Watson is averaging close to 22 points per game. What is astounding is her prowess from beyond the 3-point line. Watson has connected on a total of 63 3-pointers this season, almost five per game. She had eight treys in the Weequahic game to start the season and had seven in games against Newark Tech, Belleville and last week against Montclair. That is uncanny prowess from the perimeter and certainly peculiar for someone of Watson’s stature.
“Most of her points now come from out there,” Mitschow said. “If she’s open, she’s going to make that shot.”
“Definitely looking toward the future, Maryland sees me more as a wing or a guard,” Watson said. “I’ve definitely stepped up my game and added (the 3-pointer) to my arsenal. If I’m shooting the 3-pointer, I don’t have to get banged up in the paint. It’s definitely the best of all worlds.”
Mitschow said that her perimeter abilities have helped other parts of Watson’s game.
“She now can go to the basket more and if she gets fouled, she doesn’t miss free throws,” Mitschow said. “If she could develop even a little more going to the rim, she can’t be stopped. We’re trying to get her to go to the basket.”
But when Watson needs to be, she’s a 6-foot dominating force.
“Her presence there is always a game-changer,” Mitschow said. “I just let her stand inside and with her wing span, she’s blocking a lot of shots. She also does a great job of rebounding. She needs to box out more on rebounds, but she gets a lot of rebounds. She gets about 80% of all our rebounds.”
Watson realizes that she has another year of high school before she can take that quantum leap into big-time women’s college basketball. The Terrapins are currently 17-2 overall and ranked No. 5 in the nation.
“It definitely feels good not having to wait until next year,” Watson said. “I can work for the next year in terms of my ball handling and shooting. I get a chance to breathe a little. I really think my body needs a chance to recover and get everything ready for college. Coach Frese can’t wait to have me there. She’s already come to see me play here twice this year. It’s still kind of amazing that I’ll be playing at the No. 5 school in the country. It’s still a little early to be thinking about that.”
Mitschow is happy to have Watson for one more season.
“People still come up to me and say, ‘She’s just a junior?’” Mitschow said. “I have to remind myself of that. She’s still a kid who isn’t done growing yet. I think her best basketball is still ahead of her. Her potential is endless. She couldn’t have made a better decision. I got to have the coach of Maryland come into our gym twice. That showed a lot of class in my eyes. So it’s been a blessing to have Blair. She’s been great and we want it all to continue.”
At least for another year locally – and then to the Land of the Terrapins. Blair Watson is the most celebrated big-time athlete Nutley has had since baseball standout Larry Mohs some 20 years ago. Watson is gaining that kind of celebrity and she still has her senior year left.