Natalie Crawford's meteoric rise from second string to star center on the UC Irvine women's basketball team has caught teammates and coaches by surprise, but perhaps the person most astonished by her success is Natalie Crawford.
Crawford, a 6-foot 6-inch sophomore, came out of Leuzinger High School with limited basketball skills despite earning All-American honors as a junior. She was recruited sight unseen by Dean Andrea, Irvine coach, and averaged a mere 1.6 points and 1.5 rebounds a game in limited playing time as a freshman. In her coaches' words, she was a "terrible" player.
So, when starting center Cheri Graham broke her wrist earlier this season, guess who Andrea turned to? And guess who has responded by leading the Anteaters in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots?
"I thought I would start getting up there and doing good by my junior year," Crawford said. "I never really thought I'd be doing this good my sophomore year. But when Cheri got injured, I started working even harder because I knew I had to take her place and do everything she did in the game."
Crawford began the season as Graham's backup and said she didn't figure to play much. But when Graham, a two-time All-American, was injured diving for a loose ball in the first game of the season, Andrea told Crawford that he was counting on her to step in and take over.
"At first, I thought I couldn't take over all this pressure," Crawford said. "I didn't play much last year, so I was like, 'I can't take on this.' But Coach talked to me at almost every practice and in his office, and told me he knew I could do it."
Andrea said he believed that Crawford could develop into a good collegiate player because of her extreme dedication and hard work, although he said he knew from the start that it would take a great deal of hard work on his part, as well.
"She's the Pete Rose of women's basketball, she's a blue collar worker," Andrea said. "Every day she's getting better and better and better. Every day she becomes a bigger and bigger leader. I really believe in projects. There are two sayings in basketball. One is 'you can't teach height.' The other is 'better a project than no project at all.' I thought that if I'm any bit the coach I think I am, then it'll be a tremendous challenge, but she'll respond."
And respond she has. Crawford is averaging close to 16 points and 10 rebounds a game and leads the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. with an average of 5 blocked shots a game. She credits Andrea and her youngest brother, Casey (a 6-11 redshirt at Pepperdine), with helping her develop.
Despite Crawford's sudden success, Andrea said she hasn't let it go to her head.
"She's not egotistical--she's probably the sweetest young lady I have ever met in my life," he said. "She wants to be great. She wants to be a great student--that's the number one thing--and she wants to be a great basketball player. When she came here, she was neither. It's been a tremendous struggle for her. There have been times when she bit off more than she could chew, but she's staying with it."
Crawford laughs when she recounts her first audition for Andrea when he was recruiting her. Because Crawford dislocated her kneecap and didn't play her senior season at Leuzinger, Andrea didn't have an opportunity to watch her play. After Crawford took a recruiting trip to Washington, Andrea invited her to Irvine for a tryout.
"When I first came here, I couldn't even dribble the ball or do a pivot," she said. "It was weird, I was doing pretty good in high school, but when I got here it was like I had to learn all over again. It was different, a lot different.
"In high school, it was kind of like you just threw up the ball. My coach really didn't teach me the basketball skills."
Crawford's teammates, however, weren't laughing.
"When we brought her into the gym the first time, I remember Valerie Dehn (now a senior) turning to another player and saying, 'He's crazy, he's really flipped this time,' " Andrea recalled. "I've been known to do some crazy things before and take chances with players, but when I said Natalie was going to be a pretty good player, they all laughed at me."
As a result of Crawford's hard work and dedication, the laughter is turning into praise.