KEARNEY — Brennan Watkins has always dreamed of playing Division I college basketball. It’s a goal that’s led the Kearney senior guard to spend nearly all of his free time working on his craft.
“The one thing that sets him apart from other players is that he just always wants to get better,” Kearney boys basketball head coach Dillon Starzl said. “He’s a gym rat. He wants to be in the gym all the time.”
Watkins found himself in an unfamiliar situation this summer when almost all of the gyms were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He still found ways to work out by himself, but his normal summer routine of constant AAU practices and tournaments turned into a one-and-half month window of team workouts with just a few weekends of actual competition.
Watkins told the Courier-Tribune in an interview back in August that he feared that the Missouri high school basketball season would be canceled.
As an undersized scoring guard who is listed at 6-foot-nothing with his slight frame that might make college recruiters question the accuracy of the height measurement, Watkins wanted to wrap up his recruiting search by balling out this summer.
So when the Springfield Commonwealth Academy approached him in June about attending their school in Massachusetts this fall, Watkins and his family felt like they had to give the idea serious consideration.
SCU offered the wiry scorer the opportunity to face other Division I prospects on a regular basis.
Although the status of Missouri high school sports remained murky as the school year approached in August, this prep school provided a bubble-like environment similar to what the NBA had planned for their playoffs that were starting around that time.
Better yet, Watkins was promised the ability to have livestreamed scrimmages with access sent to college coaches in the event that inter-school competitions were canceled.
This all seemed like a perfect way for Watkins to position himself to gain back the opportunities he lost this summer and avoid letting COVID-19 take away any more exposure with college recruiters.
That is until he tested positive for COVID-19 the week before he was supposed to ship out to Massachusetts.
“(SCU) said I had to test negative before I could go,” Watkins said. “I tested positive for two and a half months.”
He said the symptoms, which included headaches along with the loss of taste and smell, only lasted two weeks. But the school’s policy erred on the side of caution.
One month after announcing his plan to transfer, Watkins took to Twitter in September to make another announcement. This time he used an homage to Michael Jordan’s famous one-line press release when he returned to the NBA following a stint in minor league baseball: “I’m Back.”
Better yet, he accomplished his dream before the basketball season started. He announced on Oct. 19 that he committed to Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.
“I made that decision so I could focus on this basketball season,” Watkins said. “Just getting better and leading this team to a state championship.”
The Bulldogs looked like they were starting off on the right track for just that, going 4-1 to start the season before COVID struck again.
Junior forward Ashton Holloway tested positive as the team entered its last week before winter break.
The team went into quarantine and got cleared just in time to play in the William Jewell High School Holiday Classic. They only had one shootaround to get prepared for a Class 6 Blue Springs team that now sports an 11-4 record. The Bulldogs lost 62-59 in overtime.
The outcome did not hurt the confidence of Watkins and his teammates as they rattled off a 7-4 record despite an extremely tough schedule. The Bulldogs are currently third in the Suburban Blue, but own a win against both teams in front of them in Platte County and Ruskin.
Watkins continues to perform at a high level for Kearney as he leads the entire Suburban Conference in points per game at 23.9 despite facing an endless barrage of double and triple teams.
Thankfully, Holloway has recovered quickly from his stint with the virus. Holloway is averaging 12.8 points and 9.0 rebounds per game and has scored 21 points or more in four of the last six contests.
Starzl sees that added post presence as being a key factor in this team jumping from good to great team. But really, it’s about getting Watkins and company to continue to gain chemistry despite circumstances, such as a quarantine, making that task extremely difficult.
“That’s what I keep preaching,” Starzl said. “It starts in practice, but it’s in the games too. … We just got to keep playing together and having fun.”
As a first-year head coach, Starzl does not have many experiences to base that on, at least with a clipboard in his hands. Starzl does have experience leading Kearney to a state championship as an all-state big man in basketball and as an all-state lineman in football.
But players and coaches of all experience levels are constantly facing the unexpected in this pandemic world. Surviving adversity might be the most important aspect for a team looking to accomplish something special this season.
Watkins knows that this team has already been through a lot and so far has come out on the other side a better team.
“I feel that we are a much better team than last year and we can go a very long way this year,” Watkins said.