By Rob Moseley
Oregon’s slap-hitting, bunt-dropping, left-handed terror of a leadoff hitter, Courtney Ceo, was once just a young girl growing up in Meadow Vista, Calif.
Back then, Ceo idolized another slap-hitting, bunt-dropping, left-handed terror of a leadoff hitter, UCLA’s Natasha Watley. A former all-American and U.S. Olympic gold medalist, Watley was once approached after a game at California by a skinny, blond-haired girl asking for an autograph.
Having procured the signature of her idol, Ceo never forgot how much the experience meant to her.
This season, Ceo and her Oregon teammates have paid that forward, and then some. When the Ducks begin Women’s College World Series play Thursday against Florida State in Oklahoma City (11:30 a.m. PT, ESPN), watching back at home will be a legion of young fans that grew bigger and bigger during the 2014 season.
After every home game, Oregon players would sign autographs and take pictures with young fans huddled just outside their dugout – for as long as 90 minutes, during the final regular-season homestand.
“I was that little kid once,” Ceo said. “Being able to give back, like the players did before me – give the kids the hope they can get to where I’m at, to keep pushing them and give them that inspiration – it’s awesome to be known in a positive way, as a role model.”
Fifteen years ago, Josh Beckett was an offensive lineman on the UO football team, one who started 15 games during the 1998 and 1999 seasons, including the 1999 Sun Bowl win over Minnesota. Last weekend, Beckett was on hand to see the Ducks and Gophers go head-to-head again, in the NCAA Super Regional round – and he had his 10-year-old daughter, Phoebe, with him.
Phoebe began playing softball a year ago. A third baseman, she was immediately transfixed by Ceo’s presence on the field during Oregon’s 10-2 win over the Gophers to open the Super Regional. Seated in the outfield initially – Ceo’s first-inning home run landed near them – the Becketts moved around to the infield later in the game, so Phoebe could be closer to her new role model.
Afterward, Phoebe made sure to get a photo with Ceo, who as usual was happy to oblige.
“It had a huge impact on my kid, that’s for sure,” Beckett said. “She hasn’t stopped talking about it. So I was very thankful. You want your kid to look up to somebody that’s worthy of it, and it sure seems she is.
“She clearly understands that what she’s doing has an impact on the world. She has a lot of class about her.”
As a player himself, Beckett said he usually left the field in Autzen Stadium quickly, in order to hang out with his teammates. He remembers watching former UO basketball star Jenny Mowe take time out to interact with young fans, but he didn’t make it priority for himself.
“I don’t know if my heart was that big yet,” Beckett said. “These girls have wisdom beyond their years I guess.”
On Tuesday of this week, Phoebe had another softball game. She blasted a triple, and then, capitalizing on an error, raced home to score – just the way she’d watched Ceo do in her second at-bat against Minnesota last weekend.
“She’s playing different; she plays harder,” Beckett said. “She was talking to her teammates in the dugout about, ‘This is how the Ducks do it; this is how Courtney does it.’”
Oregon pitcher Cheridan Hawkins similarly gained a new young fan this season. Addisyn Linton, 8, of Garden City, Kansas, discovered the UO ace while watching online videos of fellow left-handed pitchers.
To both reward and motivate his daughter for both her academic and athletic performance, Mike Linton arranged a trip to Eugene during the regular season. He contacted the athletic department before the visit, and Addisyn ended up serving as a bat girl for one home game.
Not only did Addisyn get to meet Hawkins, she got to share the same dugout.
“For me, that’s what keeps me going,” Hawkins said. “To see I’m inspiring kids that like that, that motivates me to continue to pitch and continue to get better.”
Hawkins and her teammates never forgot where they came from, despite the places they’ve gone this season – including their Women’s College Women’s Series appearance beginning Thursday.