It’s a tough task, playing on the same team as Warrior dynamo Stephanie Watts. Not because she’s a ball hog or problem in the locker room or anything like that… because she’s casting an impressive shadow.
The 5-foot-9 guard averaged 22.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, 5.5 steals and shot 51 percent from the floor last season as a sophomore. She had a career-high 50 points against Cuthbertson and this year she’s on a mission to make her junior season even more impressive, averaging 19.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.3 steals so far through 12 games.
Watts, whose athleticism, up-tempo style and impeccable court awareness impressed scouts from across the nation as early as her freshman year, verbally committed this summer to play for coach Sylvia Hatchell at the University of North Carolina – a rare feat for an underclassman, and especially for a sophomore.
It’s no question that Watts’ control of the offense has catapulted the Weddington basketball team to the top of North Carolina’s high school landscape. The Warriors are off to a 10-2 start and currently boast a nine-game win streak after a couple of fluke losses early on. They’ve throttled opponents since, winning by as many as 65 points under coach Ryun Cook, who’s in his fifth season as the Warriors’ coach.
And while it’s apparent that Watts is spearheading Weddington’s domination this year from a statistical standpoint, she certainly isn’t doing it alone.
Watts has help in guard Jada Craig, a sophomore averaging nearly 15 points per game. Craig already put up a career high 25 points in the Warrior’s Nov. 21 loss to Parkwood, and tossed in 23 when Weddington faced Parkwood again, this time coming through with a 21-point win over the Rebels.
With Craig’s double-figure scoring contributions, it’s becoming harder to attribute the Warriors’ successful start on Watts’ play alone. And though Watts garners most of the attention from recruiters, fans and the media, Craig said she loves playing alongside the Division-1 commit regardless of the additional pressures that brings.
“Playing with Stephanie is great and she deserves every bit of the attention she’s getting,” Craig said. “I feel like my time will come when it comes. I’m just a sophomore and I’m getting the attention that I call for right now. And in the end, the interviews are cool and so is the attention, but my focus is having fun playing basketball and thinking about the game. That’s what it’s about.”
Craig first picked up a basketball in sixth grade when she decided to play for a recreation-league team. She then started playing on an AAU travel team and it wasn’t long before she saw herself starting on the varsity Weddington team as a freshman, averaging eight points per game while tossing in a career-high 15 against Parkwood.
“Playing on varsity last year was a great feeling because I got to see my hard work pay off, and all the hard work that my coaches and everyone put into me,” she said. “That’s pushed me to want to give back to them and my school and do great things again this season.”
Craig will be crucial as the Warriors’ look to continue their successful run and avoid the heartbreak of last season’s final game – a bitter subject for the promising star.
The Warriors dominated conference opponents all season, falling only twice to an undefeated Porter Ridge team that went all the way to the Class 4A Western Regional championship game last year.
Looking to make a deep run in the 3A state tournament, the Warriors easily topped Northwest Cabarrus, 55-32, but saw their dream quickly crushed in a five-point loss to North Iredell, where they saw a 20-point halftime lead dwindle to fall 55-50.
“To lose like that – it was just really, really tough,” Craig said. “I think we thought that we didn’t need to keep pushing forward so we slowed down and once we slowed down, we never recovered. But I learned from that loss. I learned that you have to keep pushing and never let up, no matter what. It’s almost like you have to play as if you’re losing.
“That can’t happen again this year. We want to go further in states because we know we could’ve gone a lot further last year. We should’ve won that game and we’re going to use that to push us even further this year.”
While much of the pressure to succeed will fall on Watts and Craig, they’ve had big-time help underneath the basket in four-year varsity veteran Bailee Carter.
Carter had a career-high 36 points in last year’s road win over Sun Valley and put in 22 points in her senior season opener against Central Cabarrus. But that promising beginning to an impressive senior season has been tainted with a knee injury suffered in Weddington’s Dec. 13 win against Parkwood, keeping Carter out of play since.
Unfortunately for the Warriors, Carter’s MRI results showed a torn ACL, and she will be having surgery on Jan. 17, keeping her out for the remainder of the season and the rest of her high school career. Having Carter on the sidelines will undoubtedly put more of the scoring pressure on Watts and Craig, but it’s a task they’re willing to undertake.
“Both Stephanie and Jada can handle the scoring,” Carter said. “We’ve learned this year that whatever happens on the court is a team effort. We’re getting a feel for each other and we’re working together more. That’s why we’re being successful in our games.
“What’s cool is that Stephanie doesn’t have a typical superstar attitude. She’s so humble. A lot of us have been playing together since middle school so we know how to make plays happen and how we bond together and fit together. Stephanie’s worked so hard to get to where she is and it’s really an honor for me to get to play with her. She’s going to help us go
With the bulk of the Warriors’ points coming from the hands of Watts, Craig and a now-sidelined Carter, they’re getting contributions from a number of other players, including freshman Remi Roberts (who is averaging 8.5 points, 6.7 rebounds) and Molly Mann (four points, two rebounds), that will be key in filling Carter’s shoes.
But with Watts at the helm and Craig making big contributions across the board, the Warriors are aware they’re the team to beat with a target on their back, despite Carter’s unforseen injury.
And as it turns out, they like being the target.
“This team is quick, athletic and we know what we’re capable of,” Craig said. “We bond together on and off the court and we’re on a mission to make this our best season yet. We’ve got the talent to do it and we aren’t slowing down.”