SOFTBALL REGIONALS: Putting Things In Perspective

Because Florida lost its opening game in the NCAA Regional Softball Tournament to Bethune Cookman, 3-2, Friday afternoon, the Gators will have to battle their way through the loser's bracket where every game is an elimination game. The common term for this situation is do or die, which is what Laura Watten was thinking just last weekend, only in her case do or die had nothing to do with winning a softball tournament.

What the Bethune-Cookman coach was going through tends to put everything into a most sobering perspective.

Watten was in Dallas last weekend, 12 days removed from the sting of losing the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Softball Tournament title to Florida A&M in what was a huge upset. She knew that there would be life after the MEAC Tournament for her Wildcats, however. The NCAA comes calling when your team wins 46 games and puts together an impressive 23-game winning streak. Having made the NCAA regionals four of the previous five years with teams that aren't as good as the one she put on the field Friday, there was no doubt there would be more softball ahead. It was just a matter of where the Wildcats would travel to play.

Now, before this story goes further, take a moment to put Laura Watten in perspective. It would be safe to call her a softball junkie. She's addicted to the game she's played all her life. She was All-Southland Conference three years at Texas-Arlington, and after that, she was an assistant coach at her alma mater. In the eight years she's been the softball coach at Bethune-Cookman she's taken this program to never before reached heights. In addition to the five MEAC titles and the four NCAA regional appearances, there are 317 career victories. The current team is ranked ninth in the NCAA in hitting with a .319 team batting average and tenth in pitching with a 1.32 earned run average.

That sounds pretty good, but throw in a 3.62 cumulative GPA for her current team and a 100 percent graduation rate for her tenure at the Daytona Beach school and it's no wonder they love her in Daytona Beach. Think about how she was ready to step it up for her mom last week and you might fall in love with her, too.

Nancy Watten had a kidney transplant last week in Dallas and that's why softball was the last thing on Laura's mind. Coming out of the loser's bracket in a double elimination tournament is small change compared to the kind of do or die your mom faces with life-saving kidney transplant surgery.

Renal problems became acute for Nancy Watten last summer. That's when doctors determined that her only hope was a kidney transplant. When Laura found out she immediately began her own preparations. She knew that she was a likely donor candidate so she immediately began a regimen to become as healthy as humanly possible. She had but one goal and that was to keep her mom alive.

"We found out about it over the summer (2004)," Laura said Friday afternoon after the win over the Gators. "I was the healthiest one in the family so I decided I was going to work out, keep myself healthy and give my mom a kidney."

When doctors tested Laura it was no surprise that she was found to be the perfect match for Nancy but they also tested Nancy's sister who is eight years younger. She, too, proved to be the perfect match and it was decided that she would be the primary donor candidate with Laura waiting in the wings as the chief backup.

"If something had gone wrong and she (her aunt) ended up not being the donor I was right next to her and ready," Laura said. "It was a very easy decision and I was ready for it."

Over the next several months, Laura got herself ready as if she was the only possible donor. She wanted to be certain that nothing went wrong for mom. It never seemed like this might require sacrifice simply because this was an act of love.

The surgery was scheduled right after the MEAC Softball Tournament. Laura's parents are her biggest fans and the biggest fans of the Bethune-Cookman softball team. But instead of coming to Dallas on the high of a sixth straight MEAC championship, the unexpected happened. Bethune-Cookman was upset by arch-rival FAMU in the conference tournament.

"I went from a very tough loss in the conference tournament to jumping in to two days later to her having this transplant," Laura said.

Fortunately, the surgery went without complications. It was a stressful time but for all the right reasons. The toughest time of all was when Laura had to board a plane for Florida. She had a softball team to get ready to play in the NCAA regionals in Gainesville.

"To leave … that was tough," Watten said. "I had a flight from Dallas to Atlanta and I was upset about leaving her and then from Atlanta to Daytona I got ready to play."

So her team played Friday and they won, taking advantage of three Florida errors to score two unearned runs to offset a great pitching performance by Gator pitcher Stacey Stephens. The win put her team in the winner's bracket (1 p.m. Saturday) where they will face South Florida, a 14-3 winner over Central Florida, Friday. The Gators (41-22) will face Central Florida at 3:30 p.m. in an elimination game.

Winning Friday was bittersweet for Watten. Yes, it was good to get the victory, but the win was without her two biggest fans in attendance.

"They (parents) are my biggest supporters and my biggest fans," she said. "My dad … every single piece of clothing that he has is maroon and gold. That's all they wear.

"My dad is always out here and this is his first regional to not be at and his first time to not be out here traveling with us. My mom wanted to listen to it and all that, but I said 'no, you'll be too stressed out.' It was tough, but it was good. It really put things in perspective."

TOURNAMENT NOTES: Coach Karen Johns said immediately after the game that she has not decided who will pitch for the Gators against Central Florida. She will likely decide between Stevens (24-13) and Mandy Schuerman (12-7). Schuerman came on in relief of Stevens in the top of the seventh inning when BCC used a couple of Gator errors to score an insurance run.

Should the Gators survive the first game, they will play at 6 p.m. against the loser of the BCC-USF game. Johns said that playing a doubleheader is not a real concern.

"This is common place for them," she said. "Doubleheaders is not something unfamiliar to them. They've done it in a lot hotter weather than this. They've played three, four and five games in 98 degree weather. You go out to Texas and Florida and some of those nice steamy places in mid-August when they're playing national tournaments, so that part I don't think is really an impact as far as the outcomes and what's going to happen."

The Gators managed seven hits off BCC's Lauren McCoy but they could only punch one run across. Florida stranded eight runners for the game and blew a perfect chance to break the game open early in the bottom of the first inning because of a two-on, nobody out double play.

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