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No Trouble with the Curve for Sydney Littlejohn Watkins

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Life threw Sydney Littlejohn Watkins a curveball after the right-hander finished her time at Alabama. Without the sport that shaped much of her identity, she was left to figure out what came next. 

Fortunately, Littlejohn Watkins knows all about curveballs. 

Just ask the legion of Athletes Unlimited AUX hitters whose knees buckled as they popped up, struck out and generally looked befuddled by the right-hander’s hook earlier this summer. Five years removed from her final game with the Crimson Tide, Littlejohn Watkins emerged as one of the best newcomers in the competition. Despite a post-college softball resume that consisted of a brief stint in Europe last summer, she pitched the third-most innings in AUX and joined champion Danielle O’Toole and Georgina Corrick as the only pitchers with ERAs under 3.00. She was so good, in fact, that she earned a contract for the upcoming championship season. 

It took time for Littlejohn Watkins to find her way to professional softball. In some ways, that’s the point. Hers wasn’t a journey delayed, but instead one that required time to complete. A little lost in a world in which a curve suddenly wasn’t the answer to everything, she searched for meaning beyond the field. She found it everywhere. In the hyphen that she added after she married Alex Watkins, the former Alabama football standout. In the letters ‘RDN’ that now follow that name, the abbreviation for registered dietician nutritionist, and the career that awaits. 

She needed to follow that path away from the game. If only so it could eventually lead her back. 

“I think I have a little bit more appreciation for the game, being removed from it and now getting to play again,” Littlejohn Watkins said. “I try to celebrate everything and celebrate the little victories. For example, we all know I’m a curveball pitcher, but I’m really working on a drop-curve, just trying to add something else. So when that works, I’m celebrating that pitch. It’s not automatically ‘on to the next one.’ I’m taking a deep breath and living in the moment.”

Origins of a Super-pitch

The trademark curveball is itself early evidence of Littlejohn Watkins’ ability to adapt and reinvent. Sure, she threw a curve in high school, a distinctive two-seam grip that she learned from working with ESPN analyst and pitching guru Amanda Scarborough. But that wasn’t the pitch that made Rusk, Texas a stop for Division I coaches like Alabama’s Patrick Murphy. Heat made Littlejohn Watkins a prized recruit. Texas-sized heat and a devastating rise ball. 

But before getting to Alabama, she tore the triceps muscle in her pitching arm. It was only at that point, taking the fundamentals she learned from Scarborough and further fine tuning mechanics and perfecting the pitch through long bullpen hours with Crimson Tide pitching coach Stephanie VanBrakle Prothro, that she made the curve her primary tool. 

An All-American and All-SEC selection, she never did average a strikeout per inning, but she went 67-20 with a 1.77 ERA in more than 500 innings against the best hitters in college softball. 

It led to a culinary analogy (and perhaps a sponsorship opportunity, if anyone with the company is listening) that rings true to anyone who has sought out lunch in an SEC town. 

“If you go to Raising Cane’s, you know you’re going to get just chicken,” Littlejohn Watkins said. “With me, as a hitter, you know you’re going to get a curveball. It’s a good curveball, but everything is going to be a curveball. It’s not the Cheesecake Factory, where you have to decide what you want. I’m not throwing a rise ball, a screw-drop, all these pitches. 

“I’m throwing one pitch; I’m just throwing to different areas.” 

Life After College

Forging an reputation in the circle with one pitch proved no problem. But once graduation came and softball ended, she wondered if there was more than one dimension to her identity beyond the game. 

Part of her felt ready to move on. She was eager to try and become a “badass businesswoman,” as she put it. But moving on is easier said than done. 

“I didn’t realize I was going to miss the game as much as I did,” Littlejohn Watkins said. “That first year out of college was very hard for me. Being removed from not only the routine and the structure, but also just hanging out with my teammates every day. Having that group of friends who are always going to check on you, always going to ask if you’re OK. 

“That sisterhood, I really missed that. That was something very hard for me to get over.”

Softball never vanished, even as she slowly charted a new course. She coached and gave pitching lessons when she and Alex moved to Houston. When work took them to Birmingham, she found opportunities to work as a television analyst. While taking classes toward her graduate degree at Mississippi State, she worked with the softball team as a nutritionist. 

All the while, she continued to find her footing in the “real” world that players often talk about, the one with responsibilities and bills and considerably less free gear. By the time she again felt the itch to pitch last year, it wasn’t an attempt to run away from that real world. She learned about an open tryout for the final few roster spots in AU. Most of the players int he league were people she knew and faced in college. So, she told herself, why not at least give it a try? 

The tryout didn’t go well. She was still rusty, still figuring out a body that worked a little differently after a partial left hip replacement in 2019 – the wear and tear of all those years of torque on her landing leg taking a toll. Most of all, she put too much pressure on herself. She didn’t allow herself to just pitch. She had to be the best one there. No contract offer was forthcoming. 

But getting her name back in circulation did lead to an offer to pitch in the European Cup for the enthusiastically named Roef!, a team in the Dutch Hoofdklasse. There, far from the packed crowds she knew in Tuscaloosa or Oklahoma City, her curve started to dance again. 

“They allowed me to be myself,” Littlejohn Watkins said of her Dutch teammates. “I’m weird, I’m awkward, and they accepted me for who I am.”

Curve and a Career

This spring, AU Players Executive Committee member Victoria Hayward reached out to see if she was interested in pitching in AUX. Part of the thought process behind the new, shortened competition in San Diego was that it could serve as a proving ground for players trying to earn places in the five-week championship season. 

While Littlejohn Watkins had initially planned on taking up the Dutch team on its offer to return to Europe this summer, a new job as a football nutrition assistant at the University of Florida made that time commitment impossible. Three weeks in San Diego were far more manageable. All the more after her new bosses, including director of sports nutrition and former collegiate swimmer Kelsee Gomes, encouraged her to scratch the competitive itch. 

Fortunately, they were still understanding when, after her AUX success, Littlejohn Watkins asked about taking a considerably longer leave of absence during August. 

“I’m not going to say I’m over it now, but I’m more at peace with it,” Littlejohn Watkins said. “I think whenever the time does come for me to retire again, I think I’ll be better prepared. 

“It took lots of therapy, and I’m not ashamed of that. I had to find myself outside of softball and realize that softball is a very important part of my life, and sculpted me into who I am, but that doesn’t mean that it is all that I am.”

She came back because she learned that she didn’t need the game. She just really loved it. 

“I’m having the time of my life just getting to know these other women and cheering for them. We all have big aspirations to make a difference in the lives of female athletics and female athletics and give a dream to young girls playing softball.”