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From sick to softball stardom

Posted: Tuesday, June 24, 2003

When she was born, her parents feared she might not survive. When she had asthma as a child, they worried about her running up the stairs.

On Monday, her proud father watched as UCLA softball star Natasha Watley was honored as the Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year.

''Wow!'' Watley blurted as she accepted the big, silver Honda-Broderick Cup that has gone to the best in college women sports for 27 years. Ann Meyers, Nancy Lieberman, Tracy Caulkins, Cheryl Miller, Jackie Joyner, Lisa Fernandez and Mia Hamm are among the past winners. And now a woman who spent the first two weeks of her life on a respirator in intensive care. Wow, indeed.

''She's been a fighter from day one,'' her father, Edwin, said.

There are athletes to whom everything is given the genes, the connections, all the breaks. There are those who struggle constantly, carving out careers against all odds.

Natasha Watley, of Irvine, Calif., is somewhere in between, blessed with talent, committed to hard work, thankful for all the good fortune that has come her way.

Sports run in her family. Her mother, who couldn't come to the award ceremony because she had to work, played tennis and ran track in the Bahamas. Her father was a good athlete in high school with a couple of famous second cousins, former NBA players Willis Reed and Orlando Woolridge.

''I spoke with Willis yesterday,'' said Edwin Watley, who chose academics over athletics, became an electrical engineer, started his own business and coached his daughter in the Bobby Sox league. ''He was giving me a hard time. He always tells me Natasha is the only athlete on my side of the family.''

She overcame the asthma, took her father's advice to switch from right-handed power hitter to left-handed slapper, and made herself into that rare player who can start rallies with her bat and her feet and break open games with the long ball.

''Never in our game has there been a player with her versatility, the short game/power hitter,'' UCLA coach Sue Enquist said. ''If the defense tried to cheat and play shallow, she'd power it out. They'd go deep, she'd dump it or slap it.''

A senior shortstop, Watley batted .440 in the Women's College World Series as UCLA won the NCAA championship. For the season, she hit .481 with 10 homers, scored 64 runs and stole 35 bases. She had more than 100 hits in a season for the third time and a career batting average of .450, seventh best in NCAA history.

Watley won the award over the other four finalists: basketball's Diana Taurasi of the University of Connecticut; volleyball's Logan Tom of Stanford; swimmer Natalie Coughlin of the University of California-Berkeley; and lacrosse player Rachael Becker of Princeton.

''It's kind of shocking,'' said Watley, who flew 10 hours from Hawaii, where she was playing with the national team, to receive the award.

She will play in the Pan American Games this summer, then try out for the Olympic team that will seek a third straight gold medal in Athens next summer.

''I've always wanted to be an Olympian, it didn't matter which sport,'' Watley said. ''I never thought it would be softball, to be honest. I was playing basketball. I ran track a little bit. I started out in gymnastics, but then I got too big for that.''

At 5-foot-10, she has the long legs of a sprinter. Batting with a two-step advantage as a left-hander, she's fast enough to beat out a lot of infield hits.

All the numbers and awards, nice as they are, still would have left Watley a little empty if UCLA had not won the national championship. She and the other three seniors did not want to be the first class of Bruins to leave without championship rings in softball.

''Our three previous years, we always fell short at the World Series,'' Watley said. ''We'd get there and somehow we'd always find a way to choke or stink. This year was cool. We were the four seniors. We were leading the team and we just found a way to win.''

It was that senior leadership, especially from Watley, Enquist said, that made all the difference.

''What I'm most proud of is her character and her class,'' Enquist said. ''She went from being a freshman who followed and was a wonderful teammate, to a senior who knew how to lead.''

That, Enquist said, is a reflection of the perspective Watley learned from her parents.

''That's huge in this culture,'' Enquist said. ''Kids nowadays come up sometimes and expect everything will be given to them. Natasha worked hard and appreciated everything.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org

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