Merle Watkins

Merle Watkins stands with former players. From left to right, Zak Webb, Eric Sorensen, Brent Dixon, Merle Watkins, Chase Clark, Robert Langloss and Mike Reno.

YAKIMA — Legendary Kittitas Secondary School baseball coach Merle Watkins joined an elite group of coaches in state history on Saturday.

Watkins, along with four other former baseball coaches were officially inducted into the Washington State Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame at the Yakima Convention Center.

Along with Watkins were: Rex Ashmore (Centralia), Kevin Heimbigner (Toutle Lake, Odessa, Naselle), Ken Knudson (University of Washington) and Joe Ross (University of Washington).

Watkins spent 23 years as the Kittitas coach and amassed a career 304 wins, 21 playoff appearances, 15 trips to state, 10 league and district titles, eight league coach of the year awards and three sportsmanship awards.

He’s the first Kittitas coach to be a Hall of Fame member.

“His record speaks for itself,” said Scott Knight, chairman of the Hall of Fame committee when it was announced Watkins was selected. “He had an outstanding career at Kittitas. He did not only have a great win-loss record, but his teams were always competitive.

“He did a lot for the players that he coached. … They became men under his guidance. He really emphasized the student-athlete and his very outstanding program. It’s a well-deserved honor for Merle.”

Former player and current coach for Kittitas baseball Eric Sorensen nominated Watkins to be considered by the Washington State Baseball Coaches Association.

Sorensen and Watkins developed a strong relationship after high school. Sorensen was the assistant coach for Kittitas while studying and playing ball at Central Washington University and did that until Watkins’ retirement in 2014.

Sorensen knows how much this award means to Watkins.

“It means a lot to him,” Sorensen said. “The fact that he’s committed so much of his time and life to coaching us and coaching kids at Kittitas baseball. A guy that has a few words and you know, sometimes people like that don’t get the recognition they deserve, and for him to finally get the recognition not just at the Kittitas community, but at the state level. I think that meant a lot to him.

“… And honestly, what meant even more to him was the guys that came out of town the night before to hang out with him. And then the guys that came to the ceremony last night (Saturday).”

Sorensen took over the head coaching position in 2015. There were many lessons Sorensen learned under Watkins and he does his best to emulate the same coaching style Watkins possessed.

“I try,” Sorensen laughed. “The biggest thing I learned from Merle is the times you get on teams and the times you don’t. When you need to pat them on the back rather than kick them in the butt. Keeping things perspective, he’s great at that. And I think that’s a big key to things we try to do.”

Under Watkins tutelage, it was more than baseball at times. It was to develop relationships with players, help them grow as good people, and to work hard.

“He truly cares about more than you as a baseball player,” Sorensen said.

Watkins was known for his serene and humble personality. It was reflected on his teams he coached.

“We never freaked out, we always trusted the process and stayed cool, and knew that we had the tools and we’re prepared in every game or any tough situation to battle through it,” Sorensen said. “I think that was a huge reason why he was so successful. … He was poised, he was under control no matter what.”

Watkins knew how to keep his teams loose, and one game particular stood out to Sorensen in his sophomore year before the district championship.

Assistant coach at the time, Mitch Parker, decided to grab a first baseman’s glove and fungo bat and acted like a goalie right before the game. He said, “Hey coach, try to score.”

Watkins accepted, but it did not go well for Parker. He was hit in the groin area but was fine. It’s what the team needed to ease up, as they went on to win the contest.

“We all just kind of took a big deep breath and in the last took the field and went out and won a district title that day,” Sorensen said.

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