Watts Living His Dream At WFU.

Ever since Jared Watts could remember, Wake Forest was his destination of choice.

Whether it was watching hometown hero Justin Moose play for the Demon Deacons or honing his skills at the regional and national levels of youth soccer, the opportunity to play for WFU motivated Watts.

Now Watts wants to help the Demon Deacons get back to the top of soccer’s pecking order.

One year after the program suffered its first losing season since 1993, Watts is focused on growing his game and fueling a resurgence in Winston-Salem.

“We didn’t have as much success as we wanted last year,” Watts said of Wake Forest’s 8-9-3 finish. “We had a young team. I’m not using that as an excuse, but I feel like we’re still progressing and making good steps in the right direction.”

Watts, a 6-foot-1, 155-pound midfielder/forward, also is working hard to elevate his game. On March 8, Watts received clearance to resume full-contact drills with his teammates. He was sidelined for three weeks after he suffered a second concussion on Feb. 2 — his birthday — in a span of a week and a half.

Watts spent his first few days back after being cleared in Wilmington, N.C. enjoying his spring break, but he said he was eager to return to school to get back to training for the 2011 season.

Last year, Watts started 18 games and had one assist as a holding midfielder.

“He was a mainstay in the center of the park,” Wake Forest coach Jay Vidovich said. “He loves the game, he is competitive, and I am just excited to see him on the field and how he continues to progress.”

Wake Forest’s finish last season snapped a string of four straight trips to the Men’s College Cup. Vidovich, who took over the program before the 1994 season, has had only one season (1997, 10-10) when the team finished at .500. Since then, Vidovich has built one of the nation’s premier soccer programs thanks in part to players like Watts.

Watts, who like Moose (a two-time All-American from 2002-05 at WFU) is from Statesville, NC, enrolled at Wake Forest in 2010. He arrived with extensive international experience thanks to stints with the Under-17 and the U-20 U.S. National Teams.

He played and was captain of the U.S. U-17 team that competed at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria. He also was named a NSCAA/adidas Youth All-American in 2008 and ’09.

“When you’re in residency it really helps you get exposed to what your weaknesses are and what you need to work on in your game,” Watts said. “You really don’t have a choice. You get better because of the environment around you, not because of the pressure of what is expected of you.

“That helped me not mature my game, but it helped me become better as a player. Without residency I wouldn’t be same player I am today, but I don’t think residency makes you or breaks you.”

Watts said it was an “honor” to play with the U.S. U-17 team at the end of 2009, and that he still follows the team and the players to see who is coming up.

Despite that high level of experience, Watts admitted he had to transition to college soccer, where he typically competed against older and stronger players in a more physical brand of soccer.

Vidovich said Watts, who started 16 games, held up well to the physical and the psychological “grind” of college soccer, which included training, travel, and schoolwork. He said that “grind” is even more taxing when a team doesn’t get the results it wants.

But Watts didn’t let the first season get him down. He said playing in the residency program with the U.S. National Team helped prepare him for college soccer. He said his biggest challenge was figuring out how college soccer works and finding a way to build chemistry with his teammates

As a holding midfielder, Watts also said he had to adjust to playing in Vidovich’s system. He said he enjoys playing a role on a team that enjoys playing attractive soccer by dictating tempo and controlling possession. He said Vidovich has made his adjustment so much easier by communicating with him and making it easy to move from center back, where he played with the U.S. National Team, to holding midfielder.

Watts believes he will be back at holding midfielder this season, but he will wait to see how the team takes shape in the offseason.

This season, Watts hopes to set the tone in the “preseason.” He said he and his teammates talked about not wasting any opportunities in training to get better. He said the Demon Deacons know they “underperformed” in 2010 and are hungry to reverse their fortunes.

“We don’t like the taste we had in our mouth after last season and we’re working on getting better not taking any games for granted,” Vidovich said. “We have a better focus right now that eventually will help us in the fall.”

Like the team, Watts said he also wants to hone his skills. He said he will try to soak up as much knowledge from Vidovich because he knows so much about the game that it is bound to help him.

“The big thing for me is to take in all his information to make it better for me at my position and to help the team,” Watts said.

Vidovich is confident Watts, who was a member of the All-Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman Team, will do that and more. He has watched Watts at soccer camps and on state and regional teams and knows how much he has grown as a soccer player. He said it was a “no-brainer” to step in and contribute in a big way last season, and he expects even more this season.

“He handled it as well as any 17-year-old in the country,” Vidovich said of Watts’ transition into a key role as a freshman. He is growing into a leadership position and emerging as one of our leaders and to be one of our more inspiring players who will help dictate where the team will be next fall.”

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