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UCLA's Watley Earns Top Women's Award

June 24, 2003|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Natasha Watley may prefer to shift the focus from herself to her UCLA teammates, but her exploits on the softball field have earned her the national spotlight.

Watley received the Honda Broderick Cup Monday as the Women's Collegiate Athlete of the Year in a ceremony at Columbia University in New York City. The UCLA senior edged four other finalists: Connecticut basketball star Diana Taurasi, Stanford volleyball player Logan Tom, California swimmer Natalie Coughlin and Princeton lacrosse player Rachael Becker.

Watley, 21, is the fourth UCLA athlete to win the award, joining Ann Meyers Drysdale, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Lisa Fernandez.

"It's kind of not real when you think of that," Watley said. "I just have so much respect for them. I hold them to a higher plane and for my name to be included with them, it's kind of crazy."

Said UCLA Coach Sue Enquist, "What a great sentence to be in."

To be considered for the Honda Broderick Cup, an athlete must win the Honda award in her individual sport. Watley won the softball honor June 2, joining another UCLA athlete, gymnast Onnie Willis.

The shortstop led the Bruins to their ninth NCAA softball championship and first in four years.

A likely selection for the U.S. Olympic team roster in 2004, Watley hit .481 with a career-high 10 homers, scored 64 runs and stole 35 bases as the team's leadoff hitter.

She also had more than 100 hits for the third time in four seasons and finished with 395 in her college career, which ranks third in the NCAA. Watley, whose cousin is Hall of Fame basketball player Willis Reed, also ranks in the top 10 for batting average, runs scored and stolen bases.

"She's the total package," said Enquist, who accompanied her star to the presentation. "She's what NCAA softball is trying to expose, and she's exactly what UCLA stands for. Balance. An incredible athlete and a terrific student.

"It could not go to a more worthy person."

Watley was participating with the national team at the U.S. Cup tournament in Hawaii when she received the call from award officials. The former Irvine Woodbridge High star took the first flight she could get out of Honolulu and arrived in New York early Monday morning.

"Once I got here is when it kind of clicked in and hit me," she said. "At the press conference, they showed highlights of all the previous winners. I thought, 'Oh, this is a big deal.' "

An All-American in each of her first three seasons, Watley showed dramatic improvement this year. She added power to her game -- the 10 home runs were five more than she'd had in three years -- and became one of the most complete players in college softball.

Watley will be remembered for her performance in the Bruins' victory over Texas in the semifinals of the Women's College World Series. With two out in the bottom of the seventh inning, she singled up the middle, scoring Monique Mejia and tying the score, at 1-1. She moved up to second base on the throw home and scored the winning run on Caitlin Benyi's single with a dramatic headfirst slide around Texas catcher Marlo Hanks.

Enquist recalled the Texas victory and her player's contribution.

"The key thing for me was, I needed to get one of them on base," she said. "I needed to get Natasha to the plate because she's the greatest hitter in the United States.

"Texas thought they had it won. It was amazing that in 45 seconds, from the time Natasha got the tying hit until she scored the winning run, the whole game just turned around."

UCLA won the title the next day against California.

Watley said the Honda Broderick Cup was the perfect ending to her college career. "It's been a learning experience at UCLA," she said. "I remember coming in, and winning was my only motivation at the time. The experience of learning so much outside softball and having friendships that I'll always have and remember are something that will carry me through the rest of my life."

Watley is the second consecutive Los Angeles athlete to win the award. Last year, USC track sprinter Angela Williams was honored.

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