Quin Wilkes couldn't even crack the junior-varsity lineup until late in her freshman season at O'Fallon High School.
Three years later, metro-east soccer coaches have voted Wilkes as the Belleville News-Democrat's Player of the Year. Wilkes, a senior forward, had 15 goals and three assists as the Panthers finished 12-6-3.
Wilkes becomes the first O'Fallon player to win the award since Beth Albrecht in 1995. Wilkes was born Feb. 29, 1996, to parents Quinn and Yolanda.
"It was one of my biggest goals --to earn this award --at the beginning of the season," Wilkes said. "So I worked throughout the whole season to make my presence be known so I could earn that. And also wanted my team to win, obviously.
"It feels good to know that I won it. I felt like it was a good possibility that I could win it if I worked as hard as I can work. It feels good to know that people know you're on the field playing (hard), that you're not just another player out there."
A big step
Wilkes was far from an ordinary player. Coaches, her own and those from other schools, raved about her in-game motor and noted Wilkes' out-of-game work ethic that helped transform her from a junior-varsity reserve to a varsity star in one short offseason.
"When she came out her sophomore year, I was like, 'Holy cow!'" said Panthers coach Craig Dippel, struggling to comprehend Wilkes' dramatic improvement. "When she was a freshman, she would lose the ball and she would just stop. She didn't quite understand the game real well. She relied a whole lot on her athletic ability.
"But between her freshman and sophomore years, she started grasping the game a little bit more and working harder without the ball. Those were things that were very apparent that she had learned when she came out for her sophomore year."
Wilkes can score in every conceivable situation. At 5-foot-9, she's strong in the air, making her a target on corner kicks. Her leg strength makes her a factor on all restarts, and her timing enables her to rip a volley past an unsuspecting goalie.
"She's just a gifted athlete," Dippel said. "She's got size and speed and has developed very well as a soccer player. But her greatest asset is her work ethic and her desire to get better. Put all those together and she's a dangerous athlete against opponents.
She's a great kid, too. She comes from a good family and it's been a pleasure to coach her."
Get to work
Wilkes' inability to play junior varsity for all of her freshman season is what sparked her tireless workout regimen. She was determined to not let anything like that happen again.
"It's all of it: jogging, lifting weights, working on ball control," Wilkes said of her training routine. "My mom's always getting on me about how I need to take breaks, because I would go all day if I could. I've been making time to rest, but I've also been staying on top of my workouts."
Fear of failure keeps Wilkes working overtime --now more than ever as she prepares for her college career at Arkansas-Little Rock.
"I'm making sure I get all my workouts in and I'm working as hard as I can, because it's a bad feeling coming in as a freshman and disappointing your teammates," she said. "I'm going to make sure I'm not disappointing myself or my teammates."
Four more years
Wilkes will play forward the next four years at Arkansas-Little Rock, where she will major in biology and minor in chemistry.
She already is in Arkansas, taking classes at nearby Arkansas-Pine Bluff to earn an additional $1,200 in scholarship money.
Wilkes will move into her new quarters at Arkansas-Little Rock later this month. The season opener is Aug. 22 against Chicago State.
Wilkes just finished her senior year at O'Fallon a couple of months ago. Is she ready to start another competitive season so quickly?
"I don't think it will be an adjustment," Wilkes said. "I play all year, so I'm excited. I think I'm ready for it. There's no end to (improvement). You can improve as much as you want to if you're willing to work."
Dippel will never bet against Wilkes.
"She's going to get better and better each year because she doesn't stop," he said. "Each and every touch, she wants to get better."
Wilkes acknowledged being homesick when she arrived in Arkansas.
"The first week I came down here, I'm going to be honest, I cried every day," Wilkes said. "I'm a baby anyway, and I get real emotional. But after I made friends, it was OK. I adjusted pretty quickly. I miss all my friends (at home), but I'm ready to start a new chapter in my life and explore new places."
Wilkes is looking forward to learning about Arkansas.
"I've never lived in Arkansas, so I'm kind of anxious to learn more about it and experience it for myself," she said. "During the season, we're going to be traveling a lot in the south, and I've never really been to a lot of the states down south."