As a young girl growing up in Russia, Natalia Morozova dreamt of one day playing softball for an American university.
Not only has Morozova achieved those dreams, but much, much more as the first baseman for Valdosta State, which will be playing in the NCAA Division II National Championship Tournament in Louisville, Ky., beginning May 16.
The native of Moscow got an early introduction to the sport of softball after her mother met a coach that was trying to put together a team for young girls. Morozova was six years old, and had just been told by a local ballet teacher that her body type was not right for dance – she wasn’t tall enough or thin enough. The snub led Morozova to try softball, and she has been playing ever since.
At 14 years old, Morozova moved away from her family, and to a boarding school where she trained day and night, and eventually landed a spot on the Russian National Team as a pitcher and first baseman. She traveled around the world with the team – her first trip to the U.S. was in 2003, and loved the adventures and the competition.
“I wanted to be a part of something big, and achieve something big,” Morozova said. “I wanted to do something different. I wanted to travel around and see places.”
During her time with the Russian National Team, Morozova met Jim Webb, a respected American pitching coach. Webb worked with the team for a couple of summers, and knew of Morozova’s dream of playing in the U.S.
Through his contacts, Webb connected Morozova with the Richter family in Albany, Ga., who hosted her as a high school exchange student for two months. She played with a travel team during the stay, and caught the eye of Darton College – a junior college in Albany – and they offered her a scholarship.
Morozova returned to Russia to finish high school, and then came back to Georgia, where she played for Darton for two seasons. She batted over .400 during her career, and helped lead the team to the 2009 Georgia junior college title.
“After my sophomore year, I was so ready to go home for good, but in the last couple of weeks before going home I changed my mind,” Morozova said.
Again it was Webb that put in a good word for Morozova. Webb called Valdosta State head coach Thomas Macera and told him he needed to take a look at Morozova. He did, and what impressed him the most were her hitting skills and work ethic.
“It’s such a technical sport,” Macera said. “That’s really what separates players when I’m recruiting them – is can the kid hit? There are a million first basemen out there but [Natalia] is one that can hit.
“The kid is a workhorse and wanted to go to a competitive program. She came and watched a practice. My practices are no joke, and she really enjoyed that we worked this hard.”
Morozova did not disappoint for the Blazers. She batted .365 with five homers and 44 RBI last year, and is hitting .355 with 29 RBI this season. In the NCAA Super Regional against Florida Southern, Morozova was responsible for the game-winning RBI in both victories, including a two-run homer in the series-clinching 2-0 win.
“She’s a ballplayer,” Macera said. “She works hard every day. When it comes time to play softball, she is all business. She plays a phenomenal first base, she’s got a cannon of an arm, she’s quick on her feet, she defends the bunt very well … she is a gritty, gritty kid.”
Softball has also been a way for Morozova to build special relationships. She considers her former host family – the Richters (Greg and Pam, and their daughter Kelsey) her “American” family. They attended all of Morozova’s home games as Valdosta is just 90 minutes from Albany, and traveled to Russia last summer to meet Morozova’s family. For her graduation gift, the Richters are taking Morozova to New York City next Thanksgiving – somewhere she has always dreamed of visiting.
“They are my family now,” Morozova said. “Last summer, they came to Russia and stayed with my family. We traveled around to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and went to my brother’s wedding. It was so special. We’re so close … we’re a big international family.”
Morozova is going home for the summer, but she is not quite ready to say farewell to Valdosta yet. She will return to pursue a Masters’ of Business Administration degree, and serve as a graduate assistant on Macera’s coaching staff.
“I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my teammates yet,” Morozova said. “My parents wanted me to come back home, but they support me in my decision. They came to every single home game when I was in Russia and they watched every webcast of our games – even at two o’clock in the morning.”
“She’s got a 3.8 GPA – she’s not just a good ballplayer,” Macera said. “She’s got her act together even though she’s nine million miles away from home. She’s very mature for her age, and I’m happy to have her come back next year. She can help us because she works so hard and the team respects her.”