Speed kills and Natasha Watley knows it. So do the opponents who must defend against the best player on the UCLA softball team.
“You just play the percentages,” Washington Coach Teresa Wilson said. “Even the great hitters get out half of the time. You just hope that when you play her, it’s the 50% of the time she gets out.”
Wilson and others have found that the senior shortstop is one of the toughest outs in softball as she enters her final national showcase on the collegiate level. UCLA opens play tonight in the Women’s College World Series at Oklahoma City, where it faces defending national champion California in the eight-team, double-elimination tournament.
The Bruins again are in position to add to their eight NCAA championships. Watley has put them there with the best season of a stellar four-year career.
A former standout player at Woodbridge High in Irvine, Watley is one of three finalists, along with Arizona shortstop Lovie Jung and Texas pitcher Cat Osterman, for the USA softball player of the year award and also figures to be in contention for the Honda Award given to the nation’s top performer. As the Bruin leadoff hitter, Watley is batting .487 with 34 stolen bases and has struck out only nine times in 187 at-bats.
Speed has helped her immensely. Her 32 stolen bases her freshman season broke UCLA’s career record and her 157 steals have effectively put the mark out of reach.
“I think what separates Natasha from all of the players that preceded her is that nobody has had the versatility that she brings to the game,” UCLA Coach Sue Enquist said. “Now you’ve got a player who has to potential to drag bunt, slap, hit in the power alleys and has home run power.
“It’s what sets her apart.”
The numbers that have made the biggest difference are the 10 home runs and 50 runs batted in at the top of the order. Watley not only puts pressure on the four infielders who must contend with her speed but forces outfielders to play deep and respect her ability to drive the ball.
In the best week of her career, Watley had a two-homer game for the first time April 27 in a dramatic 3-2, eight-inning victory over Stanford. Three days later, she repeated the feat at Washington, going four for five, scoring three runs and driving in five in an 11-0 victory.
Before this season, Watley had hit five home runs.
“That was the whole point [in the off-season],” she said. “I’ve been trying to add power to my game so it would make it a bit harder for teams to defense me.”
Wilson said that has made her a different -- and more dangerous -- player.
“The last thing you want to do is put something in her power spot,” said the Washington coach, whose team also qualified for the World Series. “At one time, you could count on her getting on base, but she needed two hits to get her around [to score]. Now she’s capable of changing the scoreboard in one swing of the bat.”
Another change in Watley is her demeanor. Low-key and reserved by nature, the 21-year-old is growing more comfortable with the attention she receives.
Enquist said it has been difficult getting her star to become a vocal leader.
“I think her USA experience has really helped her leadership skills,” Enquist said. “Before, she was in the shadows and the focal point was on other people. Last year, we had such marquee players and she could kind of fit in behind them. Now she’s ready to be one of those people.
“The greatest thing is she is one of the most humble people you can be around. But I think she plays her best ball when she’s got some vigor in her.”
Watley is firmly in the mix of players who will be considered for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. During the summer, she batted .516 in leading the Americans to a first-place showing at the World Championships in Canada, where she was selected the most outstanding player.
An Olympic roster spot would be the highlight of her career.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the Olympic Games,” she said. “It would be such a great experience if I did make the team.”
It’s also important to Watley to be a role model to other African American players in a sport where they are a minority. Growing up in Orange County, she didn’t encounter many youngsters like her in softball.
“There’s been a couple of girls that have come up to me after the games and their parents have said their daughter wasn’t really interested in softball but now she really wants to go into it,” she said. “It’s good for me to be a good representative for a lot of girls so that they have somebody to look up to.”