Watkins, Vikings having fun and staying hot during playoff run

Published 9:53 am Thursday, May 2, 2024

Conner Watkins has an easy explanation for his recent hot streak.

The Warren Central senior didn’t change his swing. He didn’t discover a new pitch or tinker with his mechanics. He just decided to start having fun.

“I really don’t know what to tell you. I found myself,” Watkins said. “Instead of putting the pressure on myself I went out there and had fun. I just wanted to play the game like I’ve been doing for years, and relax and have fun.”

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Watkins — and the rest of the Vikings — are having a blast right now. He is 4-0 with a 1.75 ERA in his last five starts, while also batting .552 over the past month.

Warren Central (15-10) has won eight games in a row, including a sweep of Lake Cormorant in the first round of the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs last weekend. They’ll begin round two on Thursday at 7 p.m., with Game 1 at home against Saltillo (17-12).

“He flipped the switch,” Warren Central coach Randy Broome said of Watkins. “We’ve got five guys going to the next level and it’s a ‘when are you going to show up?’ kinda deal. You watch him perform in practice all the time and you know what’s in the tank. Let’s take that preparation to the field with us and let’s get dangerous. I think these last seven, eight games you’re seeing that.”

Watkins has been the spearhead of the Vikings’ drive to the Region 2-6A championship and their first playoff series win since 2019.

Besides emerging as the pitching ace the Vikings were looking for, he’s been on a tear offensively. The Copiah-Lincoln Community College signee raised his batting average 86 points in April, while driving in 15 runs and scoring 14.

Broome, though, was especially impressed by Watkins’ situational awareness and unselfishness. When Warren Central was locked in a scoreless pitchers’ duel in Game 1 against Lake Cormorant, it finally got a spark when Ryan Nelson led off the fourth inning with a single.

Broome called on one of his hottest hitters not to drive one into the gap, but to bunt Nelson into scoring position. Watkins did, and Maddox Lynch followed with an RBI single to put Warren Central ahead 1-0.

Watkins made it stand up by throwing a complete-game shutout that he only needed 75 pitches to finish. The Vikings won 1-0 in Game 1, and then 8-3 the next day to complete the sweep.

Watkins is hardly the only player stepping up at the most important time of the season.

Lynch was 3-for-6 with five RBIs in the series against Lake Cormorant, and also pitched 3 2/3 innings in Game 2. Brooks Willoughby followed him on the mound with 3 1/3 scoreless innings in which he struck out seven batters.

Nelson, Warren Central’s leadoff batter, has hit safely in eight of the last 10 games and scored 17 runs in the last eight games.

It’s got them hot at the right time as they head into the later rounds of the postseason, and Broome is excited about the way it’s all coming together.

“(Watkins) laid down a bunt and that’s very unselfish. He jumped his batting average up to almost .400 — .270 or .280ish to .390 in six games. To give him a bunt in that situation, that was a situation to give it,” Broome said. “We needed to try and get a run. He gets the bunt down, moves him over, and the guy behind him scores him. That’s what excites me. That’s team baseball. That’s not me baseball. It paid off with a 1-0 win.”

MHSAA Class 6A baseball playoffs, second round
Thursday, May 2 – Saltillo at Warren Central, 7 p.m.
Saturday, May 4 – Warren Central at Saltillo, 7 p.m.
Monday, May 6 – Saltillo at Warren Central, 7 p.m. (if necesseary)

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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