First published in the Sept. 4 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.
Hoover High School senior Natasha Cohen attended classes like most students when the COVID-19 pandemic altered the previous school year: walking back and forth between her bed and computer.
A diligent student, Cohen takes college-level prep courses and works hard. But her effort wouldn’t end when she shut her laptop — that’s just when she’d head out the door and meet her teammates on the baseball field.
While plenty of girls her age grow up playing softball, Cohen is unique in that she laces up her cleats, puts on her ball cap and hits the field to play the game she’s always loved — baseball. To her teammates, she’s a member of the squad. But in the record books, she is the first girl to play varsity baseball in the Pacific League.
“Seeing a girl out there might be strange, but it’s all I’ve known since I was 5 years old,” said Cohen, after a summer league baseball game. “Even when I was growing up I pushed myself despite how others viewed me. To me it feels like it’s just been another season, it’s nothing new to me.
“Personally, I am very competitive,” she added, “and I hope it shows in my play. I have the drive to push myself every time I step onto the field.”
That drive to compete began when she was a child displaying natural ability while playing a variety of sports, including soccer, basketball and flag football. Cohen loved being on the field or court, and it mattered little to her with whom she was playing — boys included.
“I just wanted to have a chance to compete, that’s what it came down to,” she said. “I wanted to hold my own or be better than them.”
Growing up with her cousin and Hoover teammate Tristan Ulloa, she often played on the same Little League teams with him and developed a healthy rivalry.
“There was always that competitiveness between us, so I feel like that is what drove her to work harder,” Ulloa recalled. “Playing with a bunch of boys, you have to prove yourself more. She [worked] harder than everybody else.”
Cohen would take her first swings for the Jewel City Little League team in Glendale, on the Carmel Construction Partner team. She transitioned to play softball in 2014, but — in unfamiliar territory — never found enjoyment in the sport. She was through only half of a season when she decided to go back and play baseball.
“The friend factor had a big part to play in my choice to go back to baseball,” she said. “I just didn’t find enough of a connection with softball compared to baseball because of the lack of my friends being there.”
Back in baseball, Cohen worked hard to improve on the field. She went on to play for the Elks and Tigers for her last years of Little League. She was selected for the Jewel City/Foothill Little League All-Star team in 2018 and pitched and played infield.
Trying out for baseball at Hoover turned out to be another hurdle as she felt the coaches turned a blind eye toward her at first and most of her male counterparts encouraged her to play softball instead. Determined to succeed, she showcased her quick defensive moves at second base and her pitching prowess on the mound. It paid off: As a freshman, Cohen earned a varsity roster spot.
Former Hoover baseball head coach Derek Parker recalled noticing her determination and said it immediately caught his attention.
“She’s an amazing team player; she is someone that always gives 100%,” Parker said. “She is a hard worker that always listens to the coaches.”
Just before her sophomore season began in 2020, the pandemic hit and Hoover played only one game before the world shut down. For Cohen, it was a devastating blow, but she and a few of her teammates found ways to keep playing by participating in informal practices.
“Toward the start of the summer of 2020, some of the former and current players, as well as parents, reached out and got together and we had some practices. … It was limited, but we were happy to still be out there,” said Cohen.
While the 2021 baseball campaign was still in question, Cohen never stopped conditioning or skill building, as she and the rest of her team held out hope for a possible season. The announcement that an abbreviated season would still take place made all the hardship worthwhile.
“I was happy when they said that we were going to have a season,” she said. “At the end of the day, I like playing games much more than practicing and the game I was looking forward to the most is ‘Beat Glendale’ day.”
The limited Hoover squad finished with a 4-14 record this past season, and the team felt it had not played its best. Playing rival Glendale High at Stengel Field would be the highlight of the season.
These were not just rivalry games — they were a battle of friends in the neighborhood. In the first matchup of the two-game series between Hoover and Glendale on May 25 at Stengel Field, Hoover trailed, 6-2, in the seventh inning before scoring five runs in a come-from-behind 7-6 victory.
Cohen felt that despite Hoover’s overall record, the victory made up for the challenging season. The young ballplayer was able to finish the campaign happy and smiling. As the season wrapped up, however, she began to question her future in baseball after the pandemic and uncertainties to come. The incoming senior weighed her options and, after consulting her friends and family, decided to play baseball her final year.
Cohen said that looking back, and forward, she hopes other girls are not afraid to play a male-dominated sport. She hopes they will embrace the challenges.
“I think they should just go for it,” Cohen said. “If you really put in the time and the work as well as the effort, you can really play with anybody.”