BYU Cougar soccer player will soon be playing with the ‘big cats’ (and a few hippos)

When most Division 1 college soccer players were growing up and watching highlights of Cristiano Ronaldo and other stars, Natalie Clark Ball was likely surfing for “The Crocodile Hunter” clips

A junior on Brigham Young University’s celebrated women’s soccer team, Clark Ball is the rare college athlete who can explain both Linnaeus’ system of animal classification and soccer’s offside rule.

So it is apropos that the Cougar midfielder/forward will soon be working with, well, big cats — along with a few other beasts high on the animal food chain.

At the moment, Clark Ball and her teammates are focused entirely on the University of Virginia, their Saturday, May 1,  opponent in the NCAA women’s soccer tournament. “I think we can go all the way,” she told the Church News. “Anything is possible for this team.”

But once the Cougars conclude their postseason run, Clark Ball — a recent wildlife conservation graduate — will begin prepping for an upcoming zookeeper internship at the Memphis Zoo. 

Her “co-workers” at the zoo will include a menagerie of tigers, lions, leopards, hippos and crocodiles. 

“Basically all of the African and dangerous animals,” she said, laughing. “I’m super excited.”

BYU soccer player Natalie Clark Ball participated in a 2019 study-abroad program in Africa, allowing her to deepen her love for the animal kingdom.
BYU soccer player Natalie Clark Ball participated in a 2019 study-abroad program in Africa, allowing her to deepen her love for the animal kingdom. Credit: Courtesy of Natalie Clark Ball

Clark Ball admits she rarely had upper-division classes with other athletes. But her BYU biology and zoology professors were eager to accommodate her soccer practices and travel schedule.

Clark Ball discovered her dual love for sports and the animal world as a young Latter-day Saint girl growing up in Mesa, Arizona.

“When my siblings are having Harry Potter marathons, I’ll be on another couch listening to David Attenborough’s ‘A Life on Our Planet’,” she said. “When I was a little girl, I would make animal habitats out of shoeboxes and bring them to class. I was the weird animal girl, and that was all right.”

An elite track athlete and soccer player, Clark Ball focused primarily on sports during high school. She initially committed to play soccer at Washington State University before opting to begin her studies at BYU. She competed on the Cougar track team then traded in her running spikes for soccer cleats.

Despite the demands of Division 1 athletics, the Church-owned school allowed Clark Ball to rediscover her love for the natural world. A 2019 study-abroad opportunity in Africa included safaris and camping in the bush, steeling her determination to work professionally with wild animals.

“My teammates think it’s hilarious, but they know it’s what I love,” she said. “They have never known anyone that does something similar.”

Former BYU goalkeeper Sabrina Davis said she appreciates her friend’s authenticity on and off the soccer field.

David and Natalie Ball were married in December, 2020. David is a former BYU tennis player, while Natalie is a member of the Cougar soccer team.
David and Natalie Ball were married in December, 2020. David is a former BYU tennis player, while Natalie is a member of the Cougar soccer team. Credit: Courtesy of Natalie Clark Ball

“I’m so excited to see her excel in her career. She’s going to be the best zoo girl in Memphis,” said Davis.

While Clark Ball — who married former BYU tennis player David Ball last December — comfortably moves between the sports and wildlife worlds, she has always been primarily anchored to her Latter-day Saint faith. 

As a rising young player navigating the uber-competitive world of club soccer, she and her parents, Robin and David Clark, made the prayerful decision that she would not play on Sundays. High-profile club tournament finals are typically played on Sundays. Their choice meant she often missed opportunities to play in front of college recruiters.

“[But] having the Sabbath to focus entirely on Heavenly Father and all of my blessings has helped make me the person I am today and helped me stay firm in the Church,” she said.

Clark Ball added her love of the natural world and her gospel testimony remain harmoniously intertwined. “Through my faith, I have a better understanding and appreciation for animals, and it’s fun to be able to teach others about animals and see that [spiritual] connection to science,” she said.