Clair Watkins eager, ready for Vandy play

Signs of the Southeastern Conference were clearly visible at Vanderbilt freshman Clair Watkins' home in Mint Hill, N.C. A floor mat with a solo black G on a red background led to the discovery of Georgia ties to her father, who spent three years in Athens before graduating elsewhere. Nearby, a random car parked at her next-door neighbor's house sported an orange T on the front bumper.

But it's the homemade notice of ‘Dore fever that really catches the eye when the family mini-van cruises the area – a hand drawn bumper sticker that announces to drivers: Vanderbilt Commodores Mom. Clair also fastened a hand-lettered Vandy sign to her own car's steering wheel, a daily imprint of the program's belief in her abilities.

Scarred from a Blue Devil bite, former Duke recruit Clair, the 6-4 center pursued by 110 Division 1 schools by her mother Nancy's count, has grown from the experience. "I've learned from it and I'm much better off now. There's always going to be a scar, but I wouldn't change a thing that happened." That's maturity speaking from a hard lesson learned.

Eleven months after then sophomore Clair verbally committed to play in Durham, Duke coaches stunned her with the news that they would honor their scholarship offer, but would not play her. The competitive athlete was forced to begin the process all over again in a very short time frame, and with significantly limited opportunities. "I'm just lucky Vandy had a spot after all that," she says softly.

Clair, who once bested 60 boys for the starting center spot for a football team in her 7th and 8th grade years, is no stranger to hard work – or intense competition. Wounded but not totally deflated by Duke's rejection, she fought all that much harder to get a quality offer. "I visited schools again but this time, I made sure I got to know the players as well as the coaches. And that's what made the difference during my official visit at Vanderbilt. It was a perfect fit."

This time, Clair asked probing questions to find the right beaker mix of team chemistry. She saw that the Commodores were a tight knit bunch, but welcoming.

"The girls came up and said hey to me and gave me hugs. I didn't know any of them yet. There were really friendly and receptive. I had questions and they were more than willing to answer. I wanted to know what their goals and interests were to see if I would fit in with them. The girls were goofy and fun and very hard working. I really appreciate that and respect it, and I can't wait to get in there and work with them." The Butler High School graduate was named the Charlotte Observer Prep Athlete of the Year and owns five title rings (including three individual shot put titles in her senior year). The track experience, including heaving 8.8 pounds of iron, developed since middle school when she also threw the discus and competed in high jump. With Butler's 87-61 thumping of a previously unbeaten squad in the state finals, and the trio of shot put titles in addition to the April announcement of her signing with Vanderbilt, Clair landed squarely on her feet.

At some point, Clair is likely to face Duke in her Vanderbilt career. "It will be great fun. I can't wait," she says of the team Vandy plays every semi-regularly (in 2007 VU bested Duke 68-55 in Nashville). Obviously for personal reasons, I'd love to see how I match up against them and the players they have there."

Another match-up will be against Butler teammate Cierra Burdick, who joins the Lady Vols this season. "It will be good to see a familiar face from the past and it will be really fun to whoop up on Tennessee every year. It's going to just continue the Vandy-Tennessee rivalry a little more personally for me. It will be interesting to see how she develops, too."

Clair is realistic in her expectations for this first year of ‘Dore development.

"The first thing I want to do is get in really good shape. Basketball-wise, I want to learn the system and get as much play time as possible, learn from the older girls while I can, while I'm still a newbie. Off the court, I can't wait to be on my own. The team will be my family. I'll be get to see how mature I really am. And with academics, I want to find out what to do as far as a career so I'll explore as many different classes as I possibly can."

Clair joins four other freshmen as the summer term begins this week. Her new class of teammates includes Kayci Ferriss (6-8, Gordonsville, Tenn.), Christina Foggie (5-9, Mount Laurel, N.J.), Tori Jarosz (6-3, Cortlandt Manor, N.Y.) and Jasmine Lister (5-5, Corona, Calif.). Spectators will see two others play for the first time this season in junior Angela Puleo (5-9), the transfer guard from Georgia, and sophomore center Stephanie Holzer (6-4), who sat out the season to recover from ankle surgery.

Head Coach Melanie Balcomb called the freshmen one of the best signing classes ever at Vanderbilt, and they contribute to the tallest team the ‘Dores have fielded since the Final Four group that included Heidi Gillingham (6-10), Mara Cunningham (6-4) and Misty Lamb (6-3) in 1993.

Reminiscing about how she began the sport, Clair said her burgeoning height led her to basketball. At 5-10 in the 7th grade, she was the tallest player on a boy's football squad, and friends told her to give hoops a try, too. She hated it. "I relied only on my height with no skill base. I was playing because I was tall, but it wasn't fun fumbling around with the ball." Instead of giving up, she went to not one, but three summer camps before her eighth-grade season. "I was in the gym quite a bit that summer. We had a good season after that." No doubt.

With significantly more complex drills and plays to learn in Memorial Gym, Vandy's No. 55 will study hard and practice harder to build on the success of her eighth-grade and senior years. She's a ‘Dore now.

Clair enjoys scuba diving and put the pool behind her house to good use. Top Stories