THE STUFF OF SUCCESS : WOODBRIDGE'S STRENGTH UP THE MIDDLE MEANS IT WILL AGAIN BE AMONG THE TOP TEAMS IN THE COUNTY, IF NOT THE NATION

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The adage is that teams must be strong up the middle to succeed. Perhaps no team in Orange County covers that stretch of real estate from home plate to the center-field fence better than Woodbridge.

The Warriors finished last season ranked third in the county and sixth in the nation by USA Today, and they lost only two players, third baseman Lizzy Lemire, who's at Notre Dame, and first baseman Ashley Boone (Florida).

Woodbridge has been to the Southern Section Division II finals the last three seasons, winning twice.

The players expected to help the Warriors make it three of four are the same players who make Woodbridge so strong up the middle. All are back for at least their third season on the varsity.

Yes, they know what it takes to win.

They are led by pitcher Christy Robitaille, who should break the county record for career victories this season, a smooth double-play combination, a strong-armed catcher and sure-handed center fielder.

"What Robitaille does best," Laguna Hills Coach Cary Crouch said, "is make batters hit the ball to Woodbridge's strength. If she does her thing, most hitters are going to hit the ball to the middle of the infield."

The Warriors (34-2 last season) are so strong in the middle infield that Coach Alan Dugard wouldn't trade shortstop Natasha Watley and second baseman Nichole Thompson for any other combination. Not just any other tandem, but any combination from any two teams.

"My impression is it's probably the smoothest two people together I've ever seen in high school; I don't ever remember seeing anyone as good as Watley and Thompson up the middle," said Dugard, whose record is 184-43 through six seasons at Woodbridge. "Both [provide] great defense, both are very quick."

And it's not as if Dugard overlooks anyone when considering his options. He compares Watley (the only junior among the Woodbridge five) to Foothill's Jaime Clark, and Thompson to Mater Dei's Kelsey Kollen:

* "Clark is the prototypal shortstop--tall, goes left well, great power, good speed. Watley is quicker to her right, goes to the hole better, is as quick to her left, will leg out more hits. She's the kind of girl who's going to bunt, slap and hit for power when she has to and will go to all fields, whereas Clark is pretty much a pull hitter. I can't find any fault with Clark, but I can't find any fault with Natasha."

* "I don't think there is any [second baseman] as quick or who goes to the ball as well as Thompson. I don't think [Kollen] even compares going to her left. Both are great little softball players, sacrifice their bodies and do what they need to to win. But I don't think anyone can compare to Thompson--she's got the glove, the bat, can hit for power, can slap and can bunt. Kelsey can't do all that."

Kollen will probably become the section's all-time hit leader this season--mostly benefiting from her impressive slapping style. "But I'm not going to trade my combo for anybody," Dugard said.

Mater Dei is the only team in the county that can compare with Woodbridge's strength up the middle. Besides Kollen, the Monarchs have Courtney Ryan at catcher, Robin Walker at shortstop, Jodi Schicker in center field and the pitching tandem of Tia Bollinger and Marissa Young.

Other teams may have better elements--Pacifica pitcher Amanda Freed and catcher Toria Auelua, or Los Alamitos catcher Sara Kahler and center fielder Kristin Farber, for example--but having all five elements is a real blessing.

"If you can get those give spots filled by quality players," Crouch said, "you're in great shape."

Center fielder Lisa Watanabe is also critical for the Warriors. Headed for Harvard next fall, she is Dugard's coach on the field--"the consummate team player," he calls her.

"Watanabe is an outfielder you don't take stock in--she's not very tall [5 feet 2], not impressive looking," Dugard said, "but she's got a great jump off the ball and makes a lot of plays look awfully easy and maybe that takes away from her great ability. She doesn't have the strongest arm in the world, but is very accurate [seven assists]. She hasn't made an error since her freshman year."

Catcher Lindsey Cohan, too, is often overlooked for what she brings to the team. Cohan, a senior, has a chemistry with Robitaille and Thompson that doesn't always show up in the linescore.

"We just look at each other," Thompson said, "and we know we're going to do it."

"It" is pick someone off second base, which Cohan did four times last season, including the semifinal and championship games. She picked off one at third, six at first.

"They're so compatible," Dugard said of his catcher-second base pickoff combo.

But Cohan is also valuable for what she brings to the battery with Robitaille, who is 66-12 over three seasons and needs 18 victories to surpass Cheryl Longeway's county record (83). The section record is 92.

Dugard has so much confidence in Cohan that he allows her to call the pitches.

"I think that's unusual at this level," Dugard said. "There are times I call a pitch, but she calls 90% of the game, and Christy seldom shakes her off."

And, Dugard said, "a merely average catcher" couldn't handle Robitaille, whose variety of pitches is complemented by her willingness to throw them when they are least expected.

"The biggest problem would be Robitaille; she needs to be confident in her catcher," Dugard said. "She'll throw a pitch no matter the situation."

Robitaille's willingness to do that not only comes from her confidence in Cohan, but also her confidence in the defense behind her.

Perhaps no pitcher takes advantage of her defense more than Robitaille, who, for the first time in three years, had more strikeouts than innings pitched last season (189 in 172 innings).

"If Christy was striking everyone out, when someone did hit the ball, we might be on our heels watching the ball go into the outfield," said Thompson, who has signed with Arizona State. "You have to be used to making plays in order to make plays."

Robitaille, who has signed with Cal State Fullerton, was 24-2 last season with a 0.28 earned-run average. In the Division II final, she outdueled Santa Maria Righetti pitcher Jocelyn Forrest, 2-0. Forrest is regarded as one of the nation's three best pitchers this season.

The Warriors also benefit from the diverse offensive style of each player.

Watley is the speedy leadoff hitter. Watanabe is the selfless bunter. Thompson can do what she wants with a bat and whose power is overlooked. They bat 1-2-3 in the order, and all bat left-handed.

"Bat left-handed with speed," Dugard emphasized.

Cohan (.236) should provide some power at the bottom of the order.

"They're all from different molds," Dugard said, "and we're stronger for it."

Watley batted .445, scored 39 runs and stole 27 bases. Watanabe batted .379 and scored 27 runs. Thompson batted .445 with 16 runs batted in and scored 30.

"Thompson is the best two-strike hitter around," Mater Dei Coach Doug Myers said.

Sophomore third baseman Brittany Ziegler, a transfer from Hawaii, and junior Tracy Alcaraz (.233), who also can pitch, will fill the holes left by Lemire and Boone on the field. Thompson, Robitaille (.167, 11 RBIs) and senior right fielder Kristy Clarke (UC San Diego) appear primed to fill the leadership void left by Lemire and Boone.

"This is a team that will get behind a leader and follow them to the end," Watanabe said. "This is a team that has a lot of faith in each other."

And for good reason.

"They have great confidence in themselves and the team," Dugard said. "They refuse to lose.

"They will tell you we're better this year than last year."

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