Petal’s loss to Harrison Central in the Class 6A playoffs Friday night brought an end to the Panthers’ season and an era of near-unprecedented longevity. Earlier in the day, it was announced that Larry Watkins, the team’s head baseball coach the last 38 years, would be leaving after this season.
Watkins’ No. 1 jersey was retired prior to the game. Afterwards, he was at a near loss for words when asked to put his coaching run in perspective.
“I don’t know if I can or not.”
Watkins came to Petal as an assistant coach in 1977. Four years later, he was named the school’s head baseball coach. With Watkins at the helm, the Panthers captured six state championships, which wasn’t necessarily expected in the early going.
“When I came here 42 years ago, I wasn’t expecting to be here very long,” Watkins said. “That can tell you something right there.”
42 years later, Watkins coached his final game at Petal, a school and community he will not soon forget.
“We fell in love with this community and raised our family here. I’ve had some opportunities along the way, but I’ve always felt like I’ve got the best job in the state. I still believe that today.
“I really believe that whoever is the next coach here, they’ll have the best job in the state. Facilities, community and we always have good talent. We just came up short this year. We had a tough year with some adversity and injuries. That’s just part of it.”
Now, looking forward, Watkins isn’t sure of what comes next. For the better part of four decades, baseball, along with family, has been his life. Adjustment will surely be needed, said Watkins.
“This will be an adjustment for me, just being used to coming in every day. But it’s time to make that change and move. I think it’ll be good for the program, and it’s just time for me. 42 years at one place is unheard of. You may never see anything like that again.
“I really don’t know what I’m going to do. We’ll just see what happens. I may be out of it a while and want to get back in it. I may not can handle not coaching. But we’re going to try.”