On a trainer’s table, Nina Watkins lay, attempting to defy both the physical and emotional pain. She could not lift her right leg.
“I was definitely heart-broken,” said the Stanford women’s soccer defensive midfielder, recalling the demoralizing MRI results from this spring.
It was her senior season, and her hip labrum had torn all the way through. Her hopes of finishing her collegiate career on the soccer field were nearly in tatters. Nearly.
“But I knew that if I would just focus, work hard enough and be dedicated to just getting as healthy as possible, that I could play through whatever pain, as long as it was for these girls,” said Watkins, a San Franciscan and graduate of University High School. “Because I know they’ve had my back my entire four years.”
But for the better part of those four years, Watkins rode the bench. As her team, behind some of the best players in the college game, battled to three consecutive national championship games, Watkins desperately fought for a starting spot.
She never got it.
“Every year, I would just embrace the role that I was given, whether it be on the field or on the bench,” she said. “I have a starting spot now ... which is awesome.”
On Friday in San Diego, Watkins, 21, will start her first NCAA women’s Final Four. The Cardinal (21-1-1) will encounter North Carolina (13-5-3) — a team they’ve never beaten — and its dangerous 3-4-3 attack formation. The last time the two teams met, the match ended knotted at 2-2.
“We know that they’re gonna come out just as hungry as we are,” Watkins said.
Wanting it more is how Stanford punched its way to the Final Four. The persistent Cardinal were down 1-0 at home to UCLA at halftime on Friday. But coach Paul Ratcliffe didn’t waver, and neither did his players.
“When we get scored on, our heads don’t go down,” Watkins said. “We keep our heads high with the confidence we have knowing that our team is together.”
Lo’eau LaBonta scored the two giant goals that sent the Bruins home, and assured the Cardinal a fourth straight trip to the Final Four.
“I think I screamed for both goals as loud as I’ve ever screamed,” Watkins said.
Two Sundays ago, Watkins did some scoring of her own, notching her third goal of the season vs. Denver.
But before attempting to seize back-to-back national championships, the Cardinal will have to topple the Tar Heels — the same team that bested the Cardinal 1-0 in the 2009 national title game.
Watkins was a freshman then. And the loss still hurts.
“It’s time to take what’s mine,” she said.