Mainland freshman Kylee Watson gets hero's welcome home in Linwood after winning USA Basketball gold medalBy DAVE O'SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — Little kids in Mustang green basketball tank tops looked up in awe at the 6-foot-3 basketball star wearing the USA Basketball jersey and shorts on Tuesday afternoon at Linwood City Hall.
The tall, graceful basketball star wasn't a senior boy, but, rather, a freshman girl.
Kylee Watson, a 15-year-old who is finishing up her freshman year at Mainland Regional High School, was honored by her hometown upon her return from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she helped the Women's U16 National Team win a gold medal last week. On June 11, USA beat Canada, 91-46, to complete a 5-0 week and win the gold medal at the 2017 FIBA Americas U16 Championship. The win also qualified the USA team for the 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup.
If Watson wasn't a local cult hero before this week, she certainly is now.
Several dozen people showed up at Linwood City Hall for a celebratory car ride through a section of the town that included an escort from the Linwood police and fire departments.
"I definitely wasn't expecting all of this at all. I kind of just found out today. I'm so excited to see my family and friends. I miss them so much because I've been away for so long. To see them all and be reunited with them all is amazing," said Watson, who, in her first varsity season this past winter, helped lead Mainland Regional to a 22-7 record and a berth in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game. "I knew I had a lot of support behind me, which I was so grateful and thankful for. People were texting me non-stop and that really helped me throughout. I knew they had my back no matter what, and even if I didn't make the team they would still be there for me. They were all so happy for me to have this opportunity."
"The whole thing has been a whirlwind. Every day was so much stress, so much excitement, so many mixed emotions. I felt like she did have a shot (to make the team). She was nominated through the AAU circuit, then we had to submit an application. We found out at the end of March that she was one of the ones invited to try out," said mom Courtney, who is a Mainland girls basketball assistant under head coach Scott Betson. "Every day there was a cut and they posted that. It went from 133 (players) to 88, then from 88 to 65, then to 38, and then it got very stressful. It got super competitive, and they could have taken any 12 girls because they were all so good. It finally got to 18 players and it was very self contained, the parents didn't have much interaction. I felt like she could have done it, and she just played her heart out. It's been an incredible experience. I had to pinch myself."
Watson said it means a lot for her to be able to represent her country while playing basketball.
"To get to play with some of the best people in our country, and to get to represent our country and wear USA across your chest is just so incredible and so amazing," she said. "It was an amazing opportunity. It's so honoring to win a gold medal for our country. It's unreal. It's amazing."
Just as good as winning, Watson said, is getting hooked up with all the USA basketball team gear.
"That was everyone's favorite part, getting all the gear," Watson said with a smile. "We wanted to represent our country because we worked so hard for this, and now we get to show it off. To represent our country is just such an amazing opportunity in and of itself."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays