PETAL – Friday night was 38 years in the making for the Petal Panthers baseball program. Well, 42 years, to be exact.
Panthers’ head coach Larry Watkins announced earlier this week that 2018 would be his last, ending a career that began in 1977. Petal celebrated the coach who won more than 800 games for the program prior to the game’s first pitch against Harrison Central by retiring his No. 1 jersey.
The Panthers would go on to lose the Game 2 first-round matchup, which ended their season with an 11-9 overall record.
“When I came here 42 years ago, I wasn’t expecting to be here very long,” Watkins said. “That could tell you something right there. We fell in love with this community and raised our family here. I’ve had some opportunities along the way, but I always felt like I had the best job in the state.”
Watkins’ Petal career comes to an end with an 868-268 overall record, and he cited timing as a major reason why he’s stepping down as head coach. Watkins officially retired in 2011 but continued to coach the team.
“You have to quit sometime, and it’s time for me because, I’m not getting any younger, but I’m still at an age where I can do some other things if I need to,” Watkins said.
Watkins wasn’t prepared to say what’s next in his life but didn’t rule out the idea of coaching again.
“It’s going to be a big adjustment for me because this is what I’ve always done,” he said. “I don’t play golf, I don’t go hunting or fishing, so it’ll be an adjustment for me being used to coming in every day, but it’s time to make that change. It’ll be good for the program and it’s just time for me because 42 years in one place is unheard of.
“… I really don’t know what I’m going to do. We’ll just see what happens. I may be out of it for a while and want to get back in it. I may not can handle not coaching, but we’re going to try it.”
Watkins grew up in Meridian and played at Meridian High School before moving on to Meridian Junior College (now known as Meridian Community College) and Delta State University. After obtaining his Master's Degree, he began working for the Petal School District in 1977. As well as coaching baseball, he coached football and basketball at Petal Junior High and he was the head boys’ basketball coach at Petal High School for eight seasons. He also served as the district’s Athletic Director for 21 years.
“I was a pretty good basketball coach,” Watkins said with a laugh. “We were pretty good. We went to south state three years, and I’ve got a lot of the kids that I coached that I’ll see them around. I loved basketball.”
While serving as head coach, the Panthers have won six state championships (1990, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2010 and 2011) and seven of his teams finished nationally ranked. Additionally, he’s had 137 players earn baseball scholarships to play college ball and 19 have gone on to play professionally.
“You’re talking about somebody who’s invested 42 years of his life to this community,” Petal Athletics Director Marcus Boyles said. “We always joked about these little kids, they come out from birth with a glove in their hand and a baseball in their hand. They’re ready to go, and it’s a credit to him and what he’s built here. He’s built a dynasty and able to maintain it. To be able to maintain this level of excellence that he’s had is just tremendous.”
Boyles had some strong words for the potential new head baseball coach, too.
“You’re stepping into some big shoes, and you’re stepping into a legend,” he said. “A lot of people are going to shy away from that, and I don’t blame them.”
Tyler Watkins, one of Larry’s sons, played and coached for his father. Tyler graduated from Petal in 2006 and went on to play college baseball at Pearl River Community College and Southeastern Louisiana before joining his father’s coaching staff in 2013.
“Really, realizing how much he knows the game,” Tyler said when asked about the differences between being a player and a coach under his father. “As a player, you’re kind of like, ‘the coach is this or that,’ even if he’s your dad, but when you step away and see how well he knows what he’s doing and how important he is to the community, you really get to appreciate it more as a coach than you do as a player.”
In a 42-year period, a program is going to see its fair share of upgrades and face-lifts, but Boyles believes the state of Petal baseball is where it’s at now because of Watkins.
“When you look around, I think it’s the best playing field, best facilities in Mississippi, and again, it’s because of him,” Boyles said. “The work he does behind the scenes to get people involved, the money he’s raised, I think we have the baseball program in Mississippi by far.”