WWCC softball player Natalie Leyland to play for British national team

Walla Walla Community College center fielder Natalie Leyland has been tabbed to play on Great Britain's national softball team playing in the world championships in Venezuela this summer.

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Walla Walla Community College softball player Natalie Leyland laughs with her Warrior teammates and coach Mike Staudenmaier during offensive drills at a recent afternoon practice. Leyland will be swinging the bat for Great Britain's national softball team at the 12th International Softball Federation Women's Fastpitch World Championships in Venezuela from June 23-July 2.

WALLA WALLA - One of the top 16 softball players in the nation plays for Walla Walla Community College.

Yes, in the nation.

No, not this nation.

The other Red, White and Blue. The Union Jack. Great Britain.

And who is this player, you might ask?

Natalie Leyland. Of Richland.

Confused?

Let Leyland straighten you out.

"I'm from the northwest of England," she said. "It's a village called Goswood, between Liverpool and Manchester. My dad works for Hanford, the nuclear power plant. He used to travel all over. For a while he worked in Norway. Then he got a job out here, so my family and I decided to come out here to live with him."

Leyland, a 2008 Richland High graduate and WWCC's starting center fielder, recently got the ultimate call-up from her birth country.

The British Softball Federation announced March 6 that Leyland and 15 others were chosen for the national team that will represent Great Britain at the 12th International Softball Federation Women's Fastpitch World Championships in Caracas, Venezuela. The tournament, which runs from June 23-July 2, includes the world's top teams, including the USA, Japan, China and Chinese Taipei.

"I'm so excited," Leyland said. "I'm going to fly out on the 12th (of June) to Florida for training camp for a week. We'll play around Orlando and scrimmage teams down there. Then, I fly out to Venezuela and my first game is against Japan.

"The one thing I'm really looking forward to is playing the Olympic champions (Japan). I'm hoping to get in there and at least foul off one ball from their pitcher," Leyland, a .556 hitter, said, laughing.

This isn't the first go-round for the 20-year-old on Her Majesty's softball squad. When she was 17, her family returned to Britain, and the high school senior-to-be became the youngest member of the 2007 national team.

Because of the distance, the British coaches had to rely on what they remembered of Leyland - and on the word of her current WWCC coach, Mike Staudenmaier - in determining her ability to play again at the national level.

In that area, Leyland said, Staudenmaier helped her immensely.

"They knew she was a good player," Staudenmaier said. "But they called me and wanted to know how she had developed.

"I'm pretty honest with people, so I told them how it was," he said. "She's worked really hard in the weight room and developed her game and is getting stronger, so that she can put balls in the gap now. Coming out of high school, she was a little bit weak in putting the balls out there a little farther.

"I just told her coach, that for me or for Seattle University (where Leyland is planning to attend next year), she's going to play center field," Staudenmaier said. "Being on a national team, playing against the United States or Japan, you're probably going to have to have her out in left (field). That's probably her biggest weakness - her (lack of) arm strength in being able to throw somebody out from center. She would probably fit better in left where she can cover a lot of ground, but still get the ball in."

For now, Leyland is enjoying the moment playing for Staudenmaier and with her older sister, Francesca. Fran, who helped convince Natalie to join her at WWCC with mutual friend and, now Warrior alum, Liz Homer, has no doubts about who the better player is.

"At softball, she's a way better player than I am, I'll tell you that one," Fran said with a quick and easy chuckle. "We have that relationship where we're close in age, but sometimes we have those fights. We're the only two on the team that coaches Jesse (Buehler) and Katie (Buehler) say that, if they fight, it's OK in the dugout.

"But when things go wrong, we're really close," Fran continued. "I am so happy for her (to make the team). She deserves it, that's for sure."

Sadly, the World Championships are the highest level Natalie Leyland and softballers from around the world are now allowed to play. As of 2008, the International Olympic Committee dropped softball as an Olympic event. That hits Natalie and her fellow Brits especially hard.

"It really sucks, because the 2012 Olympics are in London," she said. "The home team gets an automatic berth, so we would have been the team that got to go to the Olympics. We would have been playing in our home country, and I would have been an Olympic athlete. It's a bummer that you don't get the opportunity to do that.

"I think it's kind of funny, because some of the sports that are left in the Olympics are definitely not as much of a sport as softball."

Her college coach believes she's Olympic material even if the IOC doesn't.

"Defensively, she covers lots of ground," Staudenmaier said. "A ball hit in the gap that you wouldn't see most kids in the NWAACC get to, she goes and gets. That's why she's going to the next level. That's why she's on the British National Team.

"Her offense speaks for itself," he said. "She's so fast and has such good hand-eye coordination. She's only struck out once this year. She only struck out twice last year. That's big. And her baserunning - she had 20 stolen bases last year."

The Warriors, who are off to a disappointing 7-10 start, will need more of that superior play from Leyland and fellow stars Alexis Bobadilla, Shaila Rivers, Danyelle Hutchison and Lyndsey Minnich if they hope to compete for an NWAACC tournament title at the end of May.

But whether they do or don't, Leyland faces a whole new season come June. A battle against Pac-10 seniors and militarily drilled 30-year-olds from Asia, on a playfield situated in a multi-million-person metropolis, with a tropical climate, in a sometimes dangerous Third World nation, awaits.

"I got an e-mail saying Venezuela is known for kidnapping and muggings, and we might have a military escort or police escorts," Leyland said. "That part made me a little bit nervous."

Those nerves, though, will certainly fade away in her first appearance at the plate.

And the first pitch coming off the arm of that Japanese pitcher?

Slap hit through the left of the infield and a huge smile standing at first.

Count on it.

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