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Monday, June 25, 2012
Lauren Gibson getting comfortable on Team USA

By Graham Hays

Lauren Gibson
Lauren Gibson is a natural right-handed hitter but switched to the left side at age 10 to emulate her idol Ken Griffey Jr.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The first softball game of the summer against an international opponent was an opportunity for Team USA to contribute to a celebration of the past, an exhibition game against Canada at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium on Saturday played as part of the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX.

With an eye to the future, a 9-1 win for the United States was a fitting way for the team to mark its one-year anniversary as it moves toward next month's ISF World Championship in Canada.

At this time a year ago, the national team needed name tags. Team USA was rebuilt essentially from scratch after the core of the roster who beat Japan to win gold at the 2010 world championships -- gaining a measure of redemption after settling for silver in the 2008 Olympics -- left the national program to focus on strengthening National Pro Fastpitch, the domestic summer pro league. In that group's place came a collection of active or recent collegians hoping to make the team that would represent the country in a series of international competitions last summer and at this summer's world championship, an event the United States has won seven times in a row dating back to 1986. It is now the sport's signature event in the wake of its exclusion from the Olympics.

When the new-look national team played its first exhibition game on June 26, 2011, only outfielder Kaitlin Cochran and catcher Ashley Holcombe had won medals in major international competitions at the senior level. More common were stories similar to that of Lauren Gibson. After just two seasons at Tennessee, the second baseman was a last-minute injury replacement for last June's national team tryout camp. Other than one Tennessee teammate, she knew barely anyone when she arrived, familiar to the rest, if at all, as a college opponent.

By the end of a summer she had titles in the World Cup of Softball and the Pan-Am Games, Gibson had not only made the team but was entrenched as its starting second baseman. She was the heir apparent to players like Ashley Charters and Lovie Jung, second basemen who needed no introduction when they took the field for the national team.

Lauren Gibson
Lauren Gibson's name is undoubtedly in the conversation about the best defensive second basemen in college softball.

"No one really knew who I was, and I had to make a name for myself while I was there so people knew who I was," Gibson said.

The first time Gibson put on the United States uniform, she wondered whether the moment was real, the experience the culmination of a lifelong dream. But donning the same uniform this year is just a first step toward a world championship. By standards of past national teams aided by Olympic funding, the current team has spent precious little time training together under coach Ken Eriksen. But compared to the newness of 12 months ago, the uniform feels more familiar to the 13 holdovers from last summer.

"I guess the first year is more intimidating, since you don't know what to expect," Gibson said. "But coming back, you know what to expect. ... From last year to this year, I was more relaxed, not so many butterflies."

With runners at first and second with just one out in the top of the first inning Saturday night, Team Canada cleanup hitter Kaleigh Rafter lined a ball that appeared headed for the outfield grass behind second base and an RBI. By her own admission, Gibson grew up thinking of defense as a secondary concern, something to do between at-bats or between pitching stints. But after giving up pitching following high school and working on her game at Tennessee, her glove became one of her greatest assets. If she isn't the best defensive second baseman in college softball, she's in the conversation. So it was that instead of making it to the outfield off Rafter's bat, the ball ended up in Gibson's glove as she dove at full extension on the edge of the infield and crashed to the ground with an out.

It was the kind of play only a small percentage of players have the instincts and athleticism to make.

"At first I wasn't really sure if I was going to get it," Gibson said. "The way the ball was spinning, it was spinning away from me and perfectly placed up the middle. I just took a shot at it."

Perhaps generously listed at 5-foot-6, the diminutive Gibson wouldn't have had much difficulty slipping unnoticed into one of the 16-and-under games that preceded the national team's game Saturday in Oklahoma City. But with bat speed that her college coach, Ralph Weekly, compared to former national team slugger Crystl Bustos, the gold standard of power hitting, Gibson tops any list of pound-for-pound power hitters. A natural right-handed hitter, she switched to the left side when she was 10 years old, in large part to better emulate Ken Griffey Jr., the player after whom she patterned herself. But at every level, from high school to travel ball to the top tier of college, she sat back and took her hacks. In three college seasons, she has 26 home runs and a .602 slugging percentage.

But with runners on first and third and one out in the bottom of the second inning against Canada, Gibson moved through the box with the unmistakable footwork of a slapper and lined a single to right field that scored a run and set in motion a five-run inning that put the game effectively out of reach. It wasn't the most artistic of slaps, Gibson almost coming to a stop at the edge of the box as she waited for the changeup to arrive, but it was effective, all the more so considering Eriksen was the first coach to ask her to execute that particular element of the short game.

"She stayed back on it real nice, and she did her job," Eriksen said. "We're playing [220-foot] fences with a ball that's a little bit more dense than college. In college, that's a lively ball, the fences are short and you can really power the ball and drive the ball for a lot of home runs in college. But at this level right now, with the speed in the outfield, the depth of the outfield, the heavier ball, use your offense, use your speed, use your ability to move runners."

It was the kind of play the United States may need to beat a team like Japan next month and the kind of versatility that makes for an international-caliber hitter.

The most recent vintages of national team had players like Natasha Watley and Caitlin Lowe at the top of the order, players who were among the best in the world at slapping by the time they played for their country. This team has the potential for something similar with top-of-the-order speedsters Michelle Moultrie and Rhea Taylor, but it's difficult to say it has anyone who is the best in the world at something -- yet. What it has in droves are players like Gibson, players who are willing and, equally importantly, able to learn quickly.

"They know the system, they know the cut-offs, they know me," Eriksen said of the second year for the core group. "Last year the object was to play and get comfortable, and then you can get good. I think they're comfortable now. Now I want to see them get good. And obviously after good comes very good. I'm never going to use the word great -- that's going to hopefully come.

"But I'm hoping to get good and then very good this summer."

On a day about the importance of opportunity as a result of landmark legislation four decades old, Gibson and her teammates seemed ready to make the most of their opportunity now one year old.

When her college coach called to tip her off that she would make the final cut for the national team last summer, she broke down in tears in the middle of the airport while awaiting her flight home from California to Maryland and had to explain to the strangers who approached out of concern that, no, everything was really all right. Never better, in fact.

"It's just a sport," Gibson said of being part of the national team. "But it's something I've worked for my entire life."

A lot of things have changed about the national team. As a summer of both uncertainty and opportunity begins, that last sentiment has not.