Baylee Watson’s basketball identity is in flux.
As the lone senior on this year’s Carroll College women’s basketball team, one may think if any player would have a cemented identity in her fourth year, it would be the 6-foot-2 senior from Townsend.
Watson is different.
As Carroll became a more post-oriented team over the past few years, the paint clogged up and Watson’s best chance to impact the game came via the perimeter.
“It was a risky move,” coach Rachelle Sayers said. “I asked her to move. It may not have been the best move for her as a player, but it was the best move for the team.”
The road to the perimeter couldn’t have locked further away when she was a freshman, playing and learning the center position. Watson moved over to a power forward spot from there and now is playing small forward, operating primarily from the 3-point line this season.
“That was a huge transition for me,” Watson said. “There’s not a lot of paint any more. I like the perimeter. I do. You have a lot more room to operate. It’s kind of fun to be more of a passer. You can move around a lot more. As a post, it’s always banging with somebody. It’s a lot more physical. I like the speed on the perimeter.”
Learning three different positions in four years is challenging. The shift from post to perimeter meant enhancing dribbling, shooting and passing skills in a short time. Watson ended last year having started every game, playing mostly down low. This season, she began by starting on the wing, and fortifying Carroll’s biggest asset: Height.
Over the summer, Watson worked with former teammate and current assistant coach Jordan Johnston, who had made a similar shift. She reviewed film and watched her team play, envisioning the spaces on the floor she would soon occupy.
It’s all she could do.
Because Watson faced an even bigger challenge: A summertime diagnosis of arthritis in her right knee meant the former Class B prep star would be transitioning in more ways than one.
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An April weight training session went awry. Watson squatted, a lift she’d done numerous times without experiencing a setback. Her right knee twinged and Watson thought the worst it could be was a ligament tear that could upend her basketball career, but hoped it would merely be a sprain. Swelling flushed her joint, immobilizing her during the team’s summer workouts. She had the knee drained and took steroid shots, hoping to be able to start lifting and running on a treadmill again, but the pain was too immense.
“I told my coach that I can’t play right now,” Watson recalls. “It hurts way too bad.”
It would be a different problem, one she still struggles with, that surfaced after two MRIs and various consultation with team trainers and doctors. Upon seeing a primary doctor after visiting with orthopedics, the answer became clear: She was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis that has an unknown cause. According to the Spondylitis Association of America, ankylosing spondylitis commonly onsets earlier in life, typically between the ages of 17 to 45. A few risk factors include the HLA-B27 protein, a family history of AS and frequent gastrointestinal infections.
“You step out of bed and you feel really stiff,” Watson said. “Like, I used to move. Like really move. I feel for people with arthritis. A lot of people disregard it as something you get when you’re old. It’s pain.”
In the 21-year-old’s case, her immune system signaled to purge her knee, breaking down healthy tissue. An already stressful summer, one that called for her to master a new position on the court, became even more trying.
“This being the first year ever at the guard level, I have to learn all these new things and have to improve my ball handling and shooting, yet I was rarely able to,” Watson said.
She recalls the diagnosis date, a Wednesday and a day that still hangs over her. Watson administers a shot of Enbrel through her stomach now each Wednesday, a once-a-week reminder of her body’s betrayal. She admits she could take the shot any day of the week, but Wednesday seemed right.
Each day, practice and game comes with constant evaluation. Days she yearns for a workout, Watson’s knee dictates otherwise. Her dialogue with Sayers revolves around pain.
“I just tell Coach, ‘I’m gonna walk through stuff today.’” Watson said. “I’m going to see what i can do. Sometimes you get warmed up and it feels better. I’ll get warmed up and then walk through stuff. Can’t go full speed. She’s been good about that.”
Now her question of swelling isn’t if, but rather how much. Watson’s minutes in games, the turnaround between games (back-to-backs are a major hindrance) and morning workouts -- “morning’s are bad,” she said -- all play a role as Watson learns the ins and outs of her balky knee. She typically has Mondays off of practice due to her class schedule, which gives her an extra day’s rest. The last days “in that cycle she’s pretty sore,” Sayers said. “Most of the time, if she can walk, she’s going to try to go.”
“It makes me so sad knowing she’s struggling with arthritis,” junior point guard Bailey Pasta said. “She doesn’t deserve it at all. You can tell the good from the bad days but she never lets a bad day get her down. She is the strongest girl I have ever met. She’s always working her butt off every practice and every game. We definitely try to understand and try to be there for her and support her in any way that we can.”
Watson’s game has changed as a result of her arthritis.
“She understand she’s not capable of doing all the things she used to,” Sayers said. “She hates it. She’s tired a lot. She’s in pain a lot. For a while we had to talk through the fact that we have two choices: To be upset and frustrated that it happened and probably not like the result, or we can be appreciative of the way she can still play, whatever capacity that is. She has played at a high level. It hasn't’ slowed her down a ton.”
Through all of this, Watson leads. She’s a team captain and the lone senior. As she loads more responsibility with her personal health, she’s also responsible to the team and being the liaison between players and coaches. She welcomes the discomfort of being a leader, addressing team issues in an inclusive manner.
“She is a huge factor for us, especially in the leadership role,” Pasta said. “She takes the reins and holds us all accountable as our team captain. She knows what it takes to get to nationals and to beat ranked teams. So she helps us with her experience.”
When the Saints dropped a game at Montana Tech earlier this season, Sayers told the Independent Record the team just wasn’t tough enough to compete that game. In the locker room, that meant Watson and other upperclassmen relaying that message and harmonizing with it.
“It’s hard to relay a message like that,” Watson said. "Myself included. I think the team’s OK with it. It is hard. It’s everybody’s job to do it, too. You have to take responsibility for your losses. Maybe we weren’t tough enough.”
In a year full of life’s lessons, becoming a leader and delivering tough messages has been another part of Watson’s furthering education.
“Baylee is a great leader on the court and brings laughter to practice and team gathers,” junior forward Cassidy Hashley said. “She works harder than almost anyone, even with her injuries. She has a work-horse type attitude towards practices and games. I love playing with Baylee. She is one of my closest friends and will be missed.”
Watson said being the only senior on this year’s team hasn’t really sunk in, and likely won’t until Senior Night comes about. The health sciences major says it’s a part of the season she doesn’t think about too much, but it’s also one that’s given her insight. Watson will share bits and pieces of making it through the grind of one season now that she’s in her fourth.
“I think it’s an accomplishment to make it for four years or five if you redshirt,” Watson said.
Asked what piece of advice she’d given an incoming freshman: “I would probably say it goes by fast, work as hard as you can. It’s short-lived. You’re never going to get it back. Not a lot of people get to have this experience. It’s easy to slack and take days off because it’s hard. Give it 100 percent and just know it won't last forever.”
She thanks her family for giving her perspective when her body let her down, when her mind waded into negative waters. They are, she says, her “biggest supporters.”
“Even if you’re having a bad week, it’s all teaching you life skills,” Watson said. “It’s really applicable. I’d say just my family in general have helped me get through it in the hardest times.”
Watson’s transition is incomplete, but she’s showing with the right approach change can be positive.