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Heart and Soul of the Lady Mountaineers

Julie Sowell penned this wonderful tribute soon after the 2006-07 season ended. We’re proud to present it here…DT

Before every Lady Mountaineer basketball game a ritual takes place as important as announcing the starting line-up. The team forms a circle, arms around each others’ shoulders, swaying back and forth, and then the chant begins. De-An Watkins, senior co-captain and the team’s main point guard this season, is at the center, leading, energizing, inspiring effort.

What time is it? Game time!
What are we gonna do? Win!
How we gonna do it? Defense!
What else? Offense!
Who you with? BC!
Who you with? BC!
Who you with? Represent BC!

Call and answer. Let the game begin.

Watkins, of Athens, Alabama, learned the chant from her high school playing days and adapted it to Berea. It’s just one part of her role as the unofficial Soul of the Lady Mountaineers.

Now fast forward to the KIAC Women’s Championship Tournament in Louisville played in February. Watkins, hurt in the first game, is still pounding out a remarkable performance as point guard and emotional coach, on the floor when she can play and on the bench when she can’t. Now add phenomenal shooting guard Rebecca May, the team’s other senior co-captain. She’s on a roll in games one and two. Then, in an unforgettable demonstration of heart and skill in the final game, May leads the Lady Mountaineers to a down-to-the wire, upset victory over #1 seed Alice Lloyd College to win the championship and another trip to the nationals. As the final buzzer sounds, May is mobbed by her teammates. When she emerges from the pile on the floor, her face is still red from exhaustion and emotion. Over the three games, she has scored 85 points and gotten 25 rebounds, and, together with Watkins, inspired her teammates to their finest play all season.

De-An Watkins and Rebecca May played indispensable roles in the success of the Berea College Lady Mountaineers over the last four years. Their story, and the team’s story, is all there in the chant, when you look behind the words and between the lines.

What Time is it? Game Time!
Bunky Harkleroad ’93, now in his seventh year as the Lady Mountaineers head coach, introduced a version of “The System” that coach Dave Arsenault famously developed for his men’s basketball teams at Grinnell College. The play is fast, the shooting is furious, the scoring often high. Offensively, a lot of shots are made from 3-point range, and defensively, the team presses opponents aggressively to force turnovers.

There are no benchwarmers for the Lady Mountaineers. It takes the whole team – not just a few stars – for success with this system, and the players love it. “We try to use everybody on the roster, all 14 or 15 players early in the game. We substitute frequently, often all five players at a time, and we don’t always have our best five players on the court together. We play a lot of different combinations, so the chemistry issue is very important.”

Harkleroad went to this system of play to win games, but also to increase player participation and enjoyment. “I decided to stick with it because our players bought into it so well. They get excited when other people improve and egos get on the same plane as well. They feel a lot of satisfaction about that.”

The Lady Mountaineer system is also a winning philosophy by the numbers.

What are we gonna do? Win! 
In each of the past four seasons the Lady Mountaineers have won 21 or more games, with back-to-back Conference Championships in 2006 and 2007. No women’s team in the history of basketball at Berea had ever won the conference championship tournament and gone on to the next level of play in a national tournament, let alone two years in a row. Harkleroad can’t say enough about the importance of May and Watkins in these achievements.

“They’ve been good basketball players, great teammates, and they have really great attitudes,” their coach says. “They did what I asked of them, but they took things a step further. They inspired their teammates, and they played big when they had to play big.”

How we gonna do it? Defense! 
Watkins decided to come to Berea because of its affordability. In the single-parent household headed by her father there are four other children to educate as well. Having played in high school, she decided to go out for basketball at Berea for the fun of it and “just showed up” for the tryouts as a freshman. Her first three years, says Harkleroad, Watkins played a lot of different spots. This year she assumed the role of main point guard, and “when it became her time to lead she was great at it,” says Harkleroad.

This year she led the team in total rebounds, offensive rebounds, assists, steals, and assist-turnover ratio. For her Berea College career, she ranks second all-time in assists (424) and third all-time in rebounds (577). Going into the national tournament Watkins led all NAIA Div. II players in assist-turnover ratio.

She loves playing basketball, and her teammates have been like her family away from home, Watkins says, but the sport was just one part of her life at Berea, which has been a full and rich one. “Academics were the most important thing for me, trying to make a future for myself.”

Watkins distinguished herself in both of her majors – political science and sociology. Honors include receiving the McDonald Scholarship for Study Abroad in 2005 and the Albert Weidler Memorial Scholarship for excellence in social studies in 2007.

Like all Berea students, De-An has worked a 10-15 hour campus job each year, this past year as program coordinator in the Black Cultural Center. She has sung with the College’s Black Music Ensemble for four years, and she was so active in Elizabeth Rodgers Residence Hall, the freshman hall where she lived throughout college, that new students each year thought she was a member of the staff. In 2005, Watkins was chosen Berea College Homecoming Queen and this past year was Vice President of the Senior Class. She also was able to study abroad one summer, in Brazil.

“I’ve learned so many things at Berea,” Watkins says. “I’m really going to miss all the opportunities I’ve had here when I graduate.”

What else? Offense! 
Sports have always been a big part of Rebecca May’s life. Growing up in Waynesburg, Kentucky, May began playing basketball when she was six years old and played three sports in high school.

In the four years she played for the Lady Mountaineers, May became one of Berea’s most outstanding athletes, breaking both school and national records. Her junior and senior years she led the team in points scored and blocked shots. She’s a member of Berea’s exclusive 500 Rebound Club. Her career 477 3-point shots made are the most in Berea College history. She is Berea College’s s all-time leading scorer (2,121 points). Nationally, she still holds the NAIA-II record for 3-pointers made in one season that she set in 2005-06.

In 2006, May received the Coach Roland Wierwille Athletic Award. Also her junior year, she was named NAIA Second Team All-American and in 2007 was named NAIA Div. II Honorable Mention All-American. She was a 2007 Daktronics-NAIA Women’s Div. II Scholar-Athlete and, along with Watkins, was named a KIAC Scholar-Athlete two years in a row.

Outside of basketball, May concentrated on her studies at Berea, excelling academically as a Sociology Education major. She even managed to do her student teaching this year during the first half of the basketball season, at Madison Southern High School in Berea. In the spring, she was assistant coach of the track team there as well.

How did she do it all so well? Whether getting ready for a big game or for a big test, the secret, says the disciplined and organized May, is “taking things one day at a time and focusing on what is at hand.”

Who you with? BC! 
As co-captains, May and Watkins were leaders in their own ways. For May, leadership is all about action. She pulled a lot of rabbits out the hat over the years and when she got “The Look” it was almost as if she’d cast a spell on the rest of her teammates – they couldn’t help but go with her.

“Early in Rebecca’s junior year we lost a couple of games in northern Ohio, and she started to develop this Look - you could tell she was really mad,” Harkleroad says, “and it just kind of grew from there. She’d show a level of fire, and you could see something had clicked that meant ‘I’ve got to do it if it’s going to get done’ in terms of putting the ball in the basket.” A lot of her teammates just called her “clutch.”

Watkins says, “I took my leadership role very seriously. People look up to you, people see you both on and off the court. As a leader you have to recognize that, and I tried to stress those things to underclassmen coming up. I also tried to be a leader by my attitude.”

Who you with? Represent BC! 
You couldn’t find two students to better represent Berea College on the court and, as they graduate, in the world beyond Berea. This fall, May is hoping to begin teaching social studies at the high school level, and she also looks forward to applying her Berea basketball experience coaching a high school girls’ team someday if the opportunity arises.

“I've learned so much about the game and what it takes to be a successful player and team, how to be a leader. I can personally testify how great basketball can be and how it can create numerous opportunities for a young woman,” May says.

Watkins will be enrolling in the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work, the next step in preparing for a career as a capital mitigation specialist. As an opponent of the death penalty, Watkins hopes to put her education to work on behalf of indigent defendants, investigating any mitigating circumstances that may prevent the death penalty from being imposed. Summer internships in two law offices – the first a public defender’s office in Richmond, Kentucky, and the second at a capital defender’s office in Richmond, Virginia, helped clarify her chosen career path.

Berea offers no athletic scholarships. Athletes in every sport are here on the same basis as other students, taking a full course load, working 10-15 hours each week in a college job, and taking part in a wide range of other activities as well. Playing basketball at Berea is a major commitment, but it is one the players do for the love of the sport.

“One of the things we emphasize here about basketball - and we tell our players this – is that it’s the fun part of your day,” says Harkleroad. “It’s when you get to take a deep breath, take a break from studies and from work. Basketball’s not your life, but you can use basketball to make your life a little better while you’re here, and with the right perspective, you can learn a lot of important life lessons, too.”