While starting at sweeper last fall, Trace Watkins was the most reliable defensive player for a Centennial High School boys soccer team that allowed 23 goals -- the fewest in a season in program history -- en route to earning a 10-6-1 overall record.
This season, the senior captain has transformed into the Stars' most versatile player, starting in the center midfield and at sweeper, and even playing forward.
While leading Centennial to a 4-1 start, Watkins had five goals and six assists and helped limit opponents to nine goals.
"Trace has been our top all-around player and team leader the last two seasons, and he's versatile and coachable enough to play any position well enough to help our team," coach Kory Stead said. "Trace leads by example, and he sets the tone for us in practices and in games.
"When he plays sweeper, he's excellent at keeping an eye on our other three defenders and commanding the field so that we never lose our shape. His first touch and ability to pass and distribute out of the back are top notch. In the center midfield, Trace is physical enough to win balls out of the air. He's a good distributer and he's an accurate shooter from 25 to 30 yards out."
Watkins also has an effective flip throw-in that has traveled as far as 45 yards in the air and was instrumental in a 2-1 win over Walnut Ridge last season and a 3-2 victory over Briggs on Aug. 30.
While executing the flip throw-in, Watkins performs a front handspring while holding onto the ball with both hands and hurls the ball forward as his body snaps into an upright position.
"Trace turns his body into a catapult and his throw-ins can turn any play within 50 yards of the goal into a set piece," Stead said. "It's led to us winning two games that we might not have won without him, because all three goals against Briggs and both goals against Walnut Ridge started with his flip throws.
"And Trace is such a great leader that he's taking the time to teach a player from each grade level to do a flip throw so that we'll have it as our disposal for years to come."
Watkins was born in Columbus but lived in southern Brazil from age 4 until he was 10.
While his parents, Mark and Stephanie, worked as missionaries in Brazil, Watkins began playing soccer with his classmates until eventually joining the Juventude club at age 8.
He also competed in gymnastics during his last three years in Brazil, and he said that's where he gained the skills needed to execute his flip throw-in.
As a sophomore, Watkins helped the Stars win the City League title, and he earned first-team all-league and Division II first-team all-district honors last season while leading Centennial to the City final, where it lost to Brookhaven 3-1.
"There wasn't a huge difference living in Brazil compared to living here," he said. "The culture is the biggest difference, with the people there being more hospitable.
"Obviously, soccer is a lot more popular there and that's what everyone played during recess. After school let out, if we didn't have a ball, we'd keep playing using anything we could find, including rocks and cans."
Watkins continued playing soccer for recreational teams after his family moved back to Columbus. He played for Worthington Crew Juniors from winter 2007 through spring 2009.
"The development of players here is different than it is in Brazil," he said. "In Brazil, fathers play with their sons from an early age, so their first touch is much more developed at a young age. The game is more fluid there, too, with more tricks involved and people shifting around more. Here, people stay in their positions and do more passing."
Beginning with his freshman season at Centennial in fall 2009, Watkins quit playing organized soccer during the offseason to pursue a variety of other interests, including rock climbing, playing guitar and meeting with a church youth group.
He has dedicated numerous hours to volunteer work, helping construct orphanages and serving food to the poor in Monterrey, Mexico, and running day camps for kids on Native American reservations in Michigan and South Dakota.
He has a 4.17 cumulative GPA and is taking two courses at Ohio State this semester.
Watkins, who speaks Portuguese and Spanish, hasn't ruled out playing college soccer but said it's not his top priority.
"I would love to play in college, but I've heard that it takes up a lot of time and I'd have to make sure I could balance my schedule because I have different priorities than making soccer the most important thing in my life," he said. "My (Christian) faith and my family are what are most important to me and I want to continue to do well in school, too."
In the meantime, Watkins is looking to finish his high school career on a positive note.
"I'm playing different positions, looking for different ways to boost my team up through the way I play and lead," he said. "When things don't go our way, it's my job to keep my head and calm my teammates down so that we don't lose focus. I want to lead our team to another City League championship. That would be a great way to go out as a senior."
Football team still searching for win
The football team lost to Columbus South 34-14 on Sept. 7 to drop to 0-3.
P.J. Rogers scored on a 39-yard run to put the Stars up 7-0 in the first quarter, before the Bulldogs went ahead 28-0 at halftime. Rogers also scored on a 7-yard run in the third quarter.
The Stars will play host to Beechcroft in their City League-North Division opener on Friday, Sept. 14.
Centennial lost to Beechcroft 69-0 a year ago.
The Cougars lost to St. Charles 20-18 on Sept. 7 to drop to 1-1.
Against St. Charles, senior quarterback Maurice Hale rushed for two touchdowns and threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Antonio McCloud.
Other leaders on Beech-croft's offense are junior tailback Landers Cox and senior wide receiver Khaleed Franklin.
Leading the Cougars' defense are linebackers Adonis Davis and Franklin, and senior lineman Redghi Remy.