None of Michelle Watson’s coaches really consider her an athlete.
Sure, she might have been one of the best pitchers in the softball program’s history. She might be the only person in Brian Cooper’s 19-year tenure as girls track and field coach to win four WPIAL championships. She might have even spent her entire spring practicing for both sports because they happen to fall at the same time of year.
Doesn’t matter. When Cooper and Shenango softball coach Amy Delaney think about Watson, sports aren’t on their minds.
“Even putting in all that time and everything else, she always gave of herself,” Cooper said. “She was always involved in organizations where she helped give back to the community — Peer Leadership, Big Brothers, Big Sisters — all different clubs. For someone who was spread so thin with athletics, she always found time for others. I think that says a lot about her and the person she is — someone who has their priorities right. It’s not really about her, it’s about what she can do to make herself better as an athlete, better as a person, better as a help to the community.”
Watson has done a lot in all of those areas over the years, and her senior campaign was no different. Her efforts on and off the field, court and track led to Watson being named Lawrence County’s female athlete of the year by the New Castle News sports staff.
Watson won the shot put and discus events at the WPIAL Class AA championships in May. She’s owned those events the past three years, winning the shot put as a sophomore and the discus as a junior.
She was equally dominant in softball.
The hard-throwing right-hander finished with a 2.52 ERA and 150 strikeouts in 125 innings. The Lady Wildcats tied for first place in WPIAL Section 5-A with an 11-1 record and advanced to the WPIAL Class A playoffs for the second straight year. Watson also hit .438, second best on the team, and drove in a team-high 29 RBIs as the club’s clean-up hitter.
She competed in both sports during the spring, balancing practices, games and school work and excelling in all three. She’s been doing it throughout all four years of high school, so she understands the effort required to meet her goals.
“I’d definitely say time management is important,” she said. “You have to be willing to put in the extra hours. After everyone else goes home, you have to be willing to stay. There’s a lot of sacrifice, but it’s worth it if you’re giving it your all.”
Watson also was a starter on the Lady Wildcats’ volleyball team, working as a passer and defensive specialist for a Shenango team that went 14-6 and advanced to the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
Watson, who earned an academic scholarship to Robert Morris University and will participate in track and field, is one of the most decorated athletes to go through Shenango (she has 12 varsity letters in all). Her coaches said her accomplishments weren’t necessarily because of her natural talent. Watson didn’t rely on her God-given skills. She developed her abilities to become the type of athlete she is today.
“She’s that type of person,” Cooper said. “She’s a competitor. She loves to compete. She pushes herself, and if you have the talent and you have that drive inside of you, you have a very special person. She always stepped up at the highest level. She was that type of gamer who rises to the competition.”
HONING HER SKILLS
One trait that did come a bit easy for Watson was her physical strength, an attribute that aided her in both track and field and softball.
Cooper said it was Watson’s strength and explosion that first alerted him of how good she could be, but to be one of the best throwers in the state, Watson needed the form to go along with it. Cooper said technique is an area stronger athletes often overlook. They try to make up for the art of throwing with power and emotion.
That wasn’t the case with Watson.
“She spent a great deal of time understanding the sport and becoming a student of it — watching film to understand what it takes and watching herself to see what she was doing wrong,” he said. “Then she’d go home and fix it. You could tell the next day because she’d be so much better at it. I’d say, ‘That’s a lot better.’ And she go, ‘I hope so. I did this ...’ and she’d tell me all the things she did the night before. That’s when I think she really understood what it took because she could see the results.”
Watson used a similar approach in softball. She could fire a fastball past most hitters, but she also understood that better hitters would eventually catch up to her heater and hit it a long way. So she developed other pitches, specifically a devastating change-up that kept hitters off balance and wondering what was coming next.
“A lot of times other coaches would tell me after the game how impressive her change-up was and how believable it looked coming in,” Delaney said. “She had a good array of pitches. Her change-up really worked well this year.
“It took a lot of extra time. She usually would come out (to the field) Sunday with her dad. They would hit in the cage or pitch at the field. A lot of times, if they had a track meet, she would come back and take some swings after the meet. She’d either go on her own or call me and ask me to stick around so she could take some swings or throw.”
‘HOURS AND EFFORT’
Watson didn’t have a choice, at least, not in her mind. She refused to settle for mediocrity, whether it was hitting or pitching.
“They’re both a lot of work,” she said. “I don’t think people realize how much work it takes to be a pitcher and how much extra we have to do, between lessons on the weekends and stuff like that.
“And there’s a difference between hitting and being a hitter. It takes a lot of extra swings and a lot of wanting to be a successful hitter. Just the same with pitching. You can throw a ball, but if you want to be a good pitcher, you have to put in the hours and the effort.”
That type of dedication was almost too much. Delaney laughed a bit when she talked about how Watson’s relentless devotion to both sports was nearing an obsession. Watson, also a member of National Honor Society among numerous other clubs and organizations, never took a day off from practice ... or studying ... or games ... or fundraising. She never quit striving for more.
One would think the constant grind would eventually wear Watson down, but that wasn’t happening.
“There were actually a couple of times on a Sunday that I told her she wasn’t allowed to do anything,” Delaney recalled. “I said, ‘You’re not allowed to pick up a bat, a ball, your shot or disc. Nothing.’ I said, ‘You have to do absolutely nothing but relax this weekend.’ ”
That’s pretty much impossible for Watson. Aside from sports and the aforementioned clubs and organizations, she’s also involved in Students Against Drunk Drivers, Spanish Club and Student Council. She volunteers at Royal Family Kids’ Camp (a summer camp for abused and neglected children), Life Long Learning Choices, the BooFest and summer reading at Cascade Park and also is a part of the food drive and bazaar at St. Vitus Church.
Don’t forget about Peer Leadership, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and National Honor Society.
“She’s just the all-around kid,” Delaney said. “When she takes something on, she takes it on wholeheartedly. And that’s everything in her life — her classes, any kind of club she’s in, and obviously, with sports as well.”
But why? Why would a high school kid sacrifice so much of her time to help others?
“I guess just ‘cause if I was in their shoes, I’d want someone to do that for me,” Watson said. “I’d definitely say that my parents impacted me in that. It’s everything I was taught.”
Lawrence County is glad she listened.
THE MICHELLE WATSON FILE
PARENTS: Bob and Lynne Watson.
FAVORITE TV SHOW AND WHY: Friends. “I just love it. I watch it every night. I make my friends watch it, too. It’s hilarious.”
FAVORITE FOOTBALL TEAM AND WHY: Pittsburgh Steelers. “It’s the hometown team.”
FAVORITE BASEBALL TEAMS AND WHY: New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates. “I love the Bucos, but growing up, I liked the Mets. I love them both, but if they went head-to-head, I’d go with the Mets.”
FAVORITE SOFTBALL PLAYER AND WHY: Jenny Finch, former Olympic softball player. “Her intensity and passion out there are unlike other athletes.”
FUTURE PLANS: Watson will attend Robert Morris University in the fall on an academic scholarship (she finished with a 3.97 grade point average at Shenango) and study nursing. She’ll also participate on the track and field team. Watson said she decided as a junior that she wasn’t going to play softball in college, but she started to reconsider that choice her senior year. “I know now that track is what’s best, but it’s going to be hard giving up something that’s been a part of my life since I was like 2,” she said. “Softball was my first love.” Watson said the thing that put track and field over the top was the one-on-one competition. “It’s on yourself,” Watson said. “If you have a bad day, it’s not like in softball where you can say, ‘Oh, well no one played defense,’ or something like that. Because I’m the only person in the circle throwing the shot or the disc. That’s what I love is you’re relying on yourself, and I think it builds a lot of character. In the tough times, are you going to rise or are you going to crumble.”