After earning a second-team Easton All-American citation last season, junior Lauren Watson returns to add depth and experience to the Cougar line-up with her competitiveness, leadership and solid play. (Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
The game is tied ... it's the bottom of the sixth inning against rival Utah ... bases are loaded and softball player Lauren Watson steps up to the plate. The stands are packed as Watson drills a grand slam through center field, sending the fans to their feet and giving the Cougars the win.
This pressure situation could try even the greatest athletes, but Watson comes through in the most crucial times for her team. Producing results in pressure situations makes Watson the competitor that she is.
Softball has not always been something that has come natural for Watson. Years of practice, determination and heart all attribute to where she is today.
Watson, a 5-3 junior from Castaic, Calif., started playing softball at a young age, thanks to her best friend.
"I did everything my best friend did," Watson said. "So when she signed up for softball, I did too."
As a little leaguer Watson was placed at the catcher and right field positions by her coach -- the place where the least action occurs in little league. As years went by, playing catcher and outfield became more vital positions that required skill and talent.
Playing the catcher position isn't easy. Wearing clunky gear; squatting for over three hours at a time; taking foul balls in the thighs, chest and face; plus hits from charging runners--all come with the territory of a catcher.
During her childhood years, Watson continued to develop her skills and has since come a long way from hating to wear the catcher's mask and drawing circles in the dirt.
Standing at 5-3, Watson's height has always been a concern for coaches. Coaches continually wanted to reposition her, telling her that she was too small to catch or not good enough, or that someone else was better than her.
"Coaches are always brutal when you're young," Watson said. "I knew I had do it for myself."
Hard work paid off as Watson was named first-team All-American (2001), first-team All-CIF (2001), three-time Offensive Player of the Year (1998, 2000, 2001) and Defensive Player of the Year (1999), while at Valencia High School in Calif.
Watson's success attracted many of the top softball programs in the nation. The recruiting process followed and eventually Watson became the first in her family to become a student-athlete at BYU.
"Once I came to BYU, I loved it," Watson said.
Being a student-athlete at BYU is a struggle at times, juggling school, athletics, church, service, sleep and a social life.
"We work out, run, have school, meetings, double headers and we're gone for days at a time," Watson said. "It's busy, but I perform well under stress."
Aside from playing softball at BYU, Watson also enjoys engaging in service-oriented activities such as speaking at school assemblies, being involved in Dare programs and helping special needs children at local elementary schools. This fall Watson looks to volunteer her time to help in cancer work at Primary Children's Hospital. By volunteering her time, Watson hopes to pay back the debt to those who have helped her deal with her mother's cancer.
During the 2002 Christmas break, Watson returned home to receive some devastating news -- her mother had been diagnosed with cancer.
"It gave me a lot of time to reflect and think about what I wanted to do with my life," Watson said.
The Christmas break came quickly to an end and Watson returned to BYU to fulfill her responsibilities as a student-athlete. The team supported Watson and gave her the reassurance she needed to start the season while her mother began chemotherapy in January 2003.
"I felt helpless at first because I wasn't going to have any influence on my mom's recovery," Watson said. "I'm so thankful for great teammates and coaches who supported me and made this time easier."
The softball team held team fasts and meetings to show support for Watson. Her mother underwent therapy and continued to show improvement.
"Once I knew my mom was ok, that's when my season started to pick up for me," Watson said.
The 2003 season proved to be a success for Watson. She earned second-team Easton All-American, Mountain West Conference All-Tournament Team, second-team All Region and MWC Player of the Week honors.
Starting in 52 games last season for the Cougars, Watson helped the team in whatever role was needed.
"Watson is a complete player," softball coach Gordon Eakin said. "Her talent helps us regardless of the position she's playing."
The lefty hitter was second in the Mountain West Conference in 2003 for her batting average (.379), hits (66) and home runs (10).
Watson has developed into an offensive threat at the plate, but said that becoming a good home run hitter is not something you can focus on.
"You have to be very natural and react to the pitch," Watson said. "I like to think that every now and then I get lucky, getting my favorite pitch that I can turn on."
Due to her offensive success last season, Watson was voted the BYU Offensive Player of the Year by the coaching staff and teammates.
"She's competitive and contributes vocally, with the bat and behind the plate," sophomore pitcher Brooke Boyce said. "She's always wanting to win and does everything she can to help us win."
Watson is an all around athlete who is always trying to outdo herself to become better and rise to any challenge.
"The bigger the challenge, the tougher she is and she sets no limitations on herself," Eakin said. "She's a gamer and I wish everyone had that competitive spirit."
Watson's success in softball earned her an invitation to play with the Spain National team this past summer. The offer was turned down so Watson could spend time with her mother and family, but she said it's still an option for next summer.
After returning from the summer break, Watson returns hungry for a MWC title and a shot at the 2004 World Series.
"We have to take baby steps in order to reach our main goals, but we need to have them in the back of our minds during the season," Watson said.
The young program continues to build its reputation since former BYU President Merrill J. Bateman announced in 2000 that the BYU softball team would be upgraded to an NCAA division I sport.
Since the BYU environment attracts many student athletes for reasons other than just sports, the program has been able to draw from a gifted pool of athletes who want the whole package.
"We're recipients of good softball talent," Eakin said. "We have the advantage of the draw, which has helped us get out to such a quick start."
The Cougars continue to get their name out by their competitive play against national powerhouse teams such as UCLA, Stanford, Washington, California and Nebraska. They also house one of the nicest facilities in the nation, Gail Miller Field.
Last season's success earned the Cougars four top-10 national rankings in team batting average (7th), scoring (8th), slugging percentage (4th) and home runs per game (6th).
"We've built an excellent reputation in the softball world and have come along fast for a new program," Eakin said. "Top schools are inviting us to play because they know we play a good brand of softball."
This season the Cougars will be put to the test early, as they face teams such as Hawai`i, Tennessee and Oregon State at the first tournament of the season hosted by the University of Hawai`i. The team will face other tough competition like Stanford before starting into conference play.
With a talented team returning and the high level of talent coming in, the Cougars will continue to refine their excellent reputation in the softball world.
"We have an excellent recruiting class coming in, including highly sought after players, plus a good nucleus returning from last year," Eakin said. "I'm optimistic that we've assembled the right mixture of players to make us competitive."
Watson will return to the Cougar lineup this season to provide leadership and experience on the offensive and defensive ends. After extensive training in the off-season, Watson hopes to return stronger and help her team even more this season.
"I'm so excited about this year's team," Watson said. "We've worked hard to get where we are and we're doing a good job of getting our name out. We continue to get better each year and I think we're going to go far this season."
The Cougars are coming off a 14-1 record after the fall season and will kick off their regular season at the 2004 Hawai`i Paradise Classic in February.