CANTON — For months on end, Sydne Watts sat in a chair and worked on her shooting form.
Nearly two years ago, the Cherokee senior tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee, causing her to miss the 2018 postseason and nearly a full year of development.
For many athletes — especially basketball players — such an injury would be a major setback, but as time has passed, Watts has gained an entirely different perspective.
“I’ll say today that tearing my ACL was a blessing,” Watts said. “After that injury, I completely changed my shooting motion. My form went from nasty to much more fluid.”
While she was sidelined, Watts used her time wisely, spending hours in the gym and taking shots from a seated position a few feet from the basket. The result was a much-improved stroke and a bolstered appreciation for the game itself.
Watts returned to the court last season, and while she felt fine physically, there was still a mental hurdle she did not expect.
Basketball players must rely on agility and fast-twitch movements to be effective. The 6-foot-1 forward said it was not until this past summer when she finally felt she was playing at her full potential.
“It was definitely more of mental toll than a physical toll,” Watts said. “Mentally, when I got back on the court, I guess I was subconsciously scared to drive and be physical. Last year, I thought I was ready, but going back and watching that film, I was definitely playing different. There was less taking it to the hoop, less driving and less contact.”
This season Watts has been an integral cog in helping Cherokee to a No. 3 ranking in Class AAAAAAA. The Lady Warriors are once again in contention for a region championship and a deep run into the state playoffs.
This past week, Watts displayed the skill which has her bound for the Division I college ranks.
Through the first week of January, she was averaging 9.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Those averages rose last week as Watts scored a game-high 21 points at Etowah last Friday and followed that with 14 points in a neutral-site win against Grayson on a day later.
On Tuesday, Watts scored a team-high 19 points in a win at Lassiter, and her efforts during the three-game stretch were especially needed with the Lady Warriors missing starting center Kate Johnson for all three games and starting guard Chatham Brown for one.
Watts eclipsed the 1,000- point career mark against Grayson, an accomplishment made more impressive by the fact that Cherokee’s system does not allow for any one player to take a high volume of shots.
Watts, who played her freshman season at Etowah, had no idea why coach Matt Cates called a timeout after she hit a jumper to put her over the 1,000-point mark, but she appreciated the time and effort it took to reach that milestone.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for her to reach 1,000 points, and I think it says a lot about her because she’s not averaging 20 points a game,” Cates said. “She’s unselfish and she takes the open shots when they’re offered. It says a lot about what kind of a team player she is.
“She’s a great kid to coach because she’s a basketball junkie. She took that time when she got hurt to completely revamp her shot. It’s unrecognizably different from where it was, and she put a lot of work into getting it where it’s at today. She’s come a long way, and I still think she’s got a higher ceiling for things she can accomplish.”
In November, Watts signed to play at the U.S. Naval Academy. She spent time on her own to research graduation rates, earning potential and the benefits offered by a degree from a military academy. Once her options were laid out, Watts said her decision was clear.
“I saw a lot more opportunity at Navy,” Watts said. “The girls there earn such a level of respect that I would love to attain one day. I’m excited about it and excited to take on that new level of responsibility.”
Cherokee reached the state semifinals last season and began this season with a win over defending Class AAAAAA state champion Lanier at Buford Arena, the same facility where the semifinals were played in 2019 and will be again this year.
Earning the win on the return visit to Buford was something Watts hopes will help keep Cherokee moving forward for the remainder of her final season with the team.
“I think, when we broke through to the final four last season, it was such a big deal that, once we got to that arena, we didn’t really know what to do next,” Watts said. “I think getting that win will give us confidence to remember we’re still Cherokee and we can still play with any team.”