“Todd, you better get down here.”
On this particular day in July 2015, UCF Knights Volleyball head coach Todd Dagenais was hosting a one-day Attack camp in The Venue. Hearing a sentence like that meant either something really special or concerning was happening. Luckily, this was the case of the former.
“Take a look at this kid,” the call finished.
Dagenais made his way to the court to meet the kid in question, a 6-foot, 120-pound high school sophomore that he described as “a jumping jack with a noodle arm,” but had “big velocity and power, just unrefined.”
Her name was Anne-Marie Watson, and at this time, she has been a volleyball player for a little less than two years.
Just over six years later, in a Thursday morning match against Miami (FL) in Boca Raton, Watson etched her name in the annals of UCF volleyball history. By recording her 476th career block assist, she broke a program record set by Tyra Harper (now Tyra Turner) that has stood for 24 years. For her contributions to the program, Harper’s name was added to the Ring of Honor in The Venue.
“I walk into practice every day and I see her name up there on that wall,” Watson said. “It’s really surreal to see that I’m kind of up there with her.”
However, had Watson made a different decision in the fall of 2013, things might have turned out very differently, both for her own life and UCF Volleyball.
Watson said she played softball for almost 10 years, even wanting to play the sport in college. However, things changed when she began her freshman year in 2013 at Hagerty High School, a mere five-minute drive down Lockwood Blvd. from the UCF campus. Thanks to convincing from her friends, Watson decided she would forgo playing slow-pitch softball in the fall and try out for the volleyball team instead.
She made the varsity team as a freshman.
Juanita Hitt entered the picture a year later, Watson’s sophomore season. A former assistant coach under Meg Fitzgerald at UCF from 2002-2007, Hitt was two years removed from her last head coaching job at Orlando Christian Prep. She is still head coach of the Hagerty Girls Volleyball team to this day.
Looking back on Watson’s high school career, Hitt praised her raw physical talent and how she was able to adapt to a new sport so relatively quickly.
“She did a great job coming in and adapting to a new sport,” Hitt said. “Volleyball was her second sport and she lettered in it and went on to play college. So, I think that just says volumes about her athletic ability.”
As her four years on the varsity volleyball team progressed, Watson continued to pick up the game, her athleticism leading her to perform feats that would leave the audience, as Hitt put it, “in awe.” One day, when the team was facing Lake Mary High School, Hitt said, a girl was cutting across the volleyball court during warmups as Watson was hitting. She ended up accidentally giving the girl a concussion.
“When Anne-Marie would hit in warmups, she would scare the other team,” Hitt said.
Watson would be a part of two district championship-winning teams in 2015 and 2016 before she graduated and began attending UCF. However, even post-Watson, Hagerty Girls Volleyball has found sustained success, winning the district championship every year since for a total of six straight district championships, making a State Final Four Appearance in 2017, and winning a 7A State Championship in 2019, the first in program history.
“We started with that culture back when we won our first district championship and we’ve won six in a row now,” Hitt said. “She has laid the path and the groundwork for a successful program for us to have.”
Back 2 Back District Champs! So proud of each of these girls! pic.twitter.com/gMPyJDEVl3— Hagerty Volleyball (@HagertyVB) October 21, 2016
Watson arrived at UCF in the fall of 2017 and, by his own admission, Dagenais said it was no coincidence that the last four seasons of UCF Volleyball had seen the best defense the team has ever had.
“She is easily the best one-on-one blocker that I’ve ever coached,” Dagenais said. “She just has that instinct, and you wouldn’t think that being only 6 feet tall, but she explodes, she gets off the ground fast. The offense that we get out of her is just a bonus.”
Her teammates share similar sentiments. Sophomore setter, and fellow Hagerty alum, Emily Lawrence said she has looked up to Watson since she was a high school freshman (Watson was a senior that year), and she has also taken notice of Watson’s pure athleticism giving her an advantage on the court.
“She’s definitely a player that you have to respect on the other side of the net,” Lawrence said. “She’s very good offensively, she finds the court very well and when she gets a good ball and she is up there, she will hit it down hard and you got to be ready to play defense or get out of the way.”
Lawrence said she was recruited to UCF in her sophomore year and that Watson reached out to her once she committed. As Lawrence finished up her Hagerty career, the two interacted more, such as Watson being Lawrence’s host player on her official visit to UCF as well as attending some of Lawrence’s games at Hagerty. It pays to be a five-minute drive from the main campus.
“It made me look forward to getting to play with her at UCF so much,” Lawrence said. “She would bring other UCF teammates, my coaches would come and it was such a cool experience to have that support and someone that I already really knew, at least a little bit, going into college. It was a huge help for me.”
Now, thanks to the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA Division I Council on Aug. 21, 2020, Watson is back for one more season with the Knights and is closer with Lawrence than ever before. Lawrence said she got close with Watson and her family during the pandemic, and now that she is back for an extra year she can have one more year to go through student life with her, a teammate she knows she can rely on to talk to.
“You know, college athletics and being a student-athlete, it’s a job,” Lawrence said. “It is very difficult at times, but she handles it with such grace and maturity.”
Watson said she hopes UCF will remember her in a similar way Lawrence does.
“I think I just want people to say that I was the kind of teammate that people could go to that had a very calm sense on the court and calm composure off the court as well,” Watson said.
Lawrence calls her a friend, a mentor, and one of the most athletic girls she’s seen in her life. Hitt calls her one of Hagerty’s Top 10 female volleyball players of all time. Dagenais said she has the most natural blocking ability he has ever coached.
With Harper’s career block assists record now broken, 1,000 career kills, Harper’s career total blocks record within reach (She’s 123 blocks away as of Sept. 26), and a chance to join her as the only UCF Volleyball players to be named to the All-Conference First Team three times, Watson has emerged from playing in the shadow of UCF’s campus to become one of the best Knights to ever take the court in the Venue.
It would not be a reach to say that Watson herself will one day have her own name on the wall alongside Harper. Perhaps she may join her in the UCF Athletics Hall of Fame as well, once she becomes eligible in 2028.
For now, she still has one more season to complete, one more record to chase, and as the team begins conference play, one more conference title to win.
“For somebody who was under-recruited, somebody that we were very lucky to have at camp, somebody that really came to camp to show out, and then to carry that on as a freshman,” Dagenais said. “She’s had a very special career up to this point and I have no reason to believe it’s not going to finish that way.”
Watch Eric Lopez’s interview with Anne-Marie here: