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Tuesday, June 4, 2013
OU's Chamberlain elevates game

By Graham Hays
espnW.com

Lauren Chamberlain
Lauren Chamberlain, center with batting helmet, gets mobbed by teammates after her 12th-inning walk-off home run lifted Oklahoma to a 1-0 lead in the WCWS on Monday night.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- If Lauren Chamberlain swung a bat in the forest and no one was around to hear the barrel connect with the ball, it would definitely still make a sound. Philosophy is fine for falling firs, but it is no match for that noise.

Thankfully, the prospect of Chamberlain swinging a bat without an audience anytime soon is strictly a thought experiment.

The California native will tell you she doesn't feel the contact on her best swings, the pure ones that produce results like Monday's walk-off winner against Tennessee, or one homer in a semifinal against Washington that might as well have counted for five bases for all the extra distance by which it cleared the fence. She does hear the result, though, the unmistakable resonant crack of bat meeting ball, followed by the crowd's sharp intake of breath expelled as a roar.

"That was a fun one," she said of the home run against the Huskies. "I just liked how the crowd reacted. I'm just trying to soak up all the sounds I can right now."

Lauren Chamberlain
Lauren Chamberlain's presence -- and her absence -- made a difference for Oklahoma this season.

Even as one of her teammates, Keilani Ricketts, attempts to close her senior season with the national championship that would cement her place among the sport's all-time greats, Chamberlain is approaching the halfway mark in a career that may reveal her to be the best college hitter who ever lived. And each swing reveals something else.

She is the star the sport needs. What Alex Morgan is for soccer, she can be for softball.

There are almost too many statistics that illustrate why Chamberlain isn't merely one of the best hitters of the moment but a hitter building a case for more permanent accolades. At some point, the numbers piled upon numbers make your eyes glaze over. But consider that with 60 home runs in two seasons, she is already just two shy of the top 25 home run totals in NCAA history. To get there this quickly, she has averaged 0.48 home runs per game. Former UCLA All-American and United States Olympian Stacey Nuveman, who holds the NCAA career record with 90, averaged 0.34 home runs per game. No other player in the top 25 averaged better than 0.35.

If Chamberlain maintains her pace and plays an average of 60 games in each of her final two seasons, a fair estimate based on her first two seasons, she would finish with at least 118 home runs.

Relative to the old record, that's like someone in Major League Baseball eclipsing Joe DiMaggio by hitting in 73 consecutive games.

Or consider that only two players in NCAA history finished with a career slugging percentage of at least .850. Nuveman holds the career record with a .945 mark. Chamberlain's career slugging percentage stands at .980.

"She's got dynamite in her hands," said Team USA coach Ken Eriksen. "She takes a powerful cut, albeit when you do take a look at that approach on videotape, it's as compact as compact can be for somebody of her stature."

Have we gotten to the part where she hits leadoff for the Sooners, is 23-of-24 in career stolen-base attempts and has a career on-base percentage well over .500?

"I tell you, I've never had a player come in as a freshman and do what she did," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. "And then what you get concerned about is as a sophomore, is she going to try to put pressure on herself? She just has this unbelievable, undeniable confidence that I've never seen in a player before. She's smart, she's calculating, she's deliberate at the plate, yet she is the one that really stirs the pot on this team.

"She motivates this team, and we follow her lead. Like we follow Keilani, we follow Lauren."

And while the numbers make a compelling case for just how good she is, it's that other part that makes her a galvanizing figure.

Most of the recent stars whose name recognition spread beyond softball, who brought the eyes of casual fans to the sport, have at least a connection to pitching. If not pitchers exclusively, as in the cases of Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman, they pitched in addition to their work at the plate, like Lisa Fernandez and Jennie Finch. It's more difficult to be the name on the marquee with three or four at-bats a game instead of the ball in your hand half the time.

Difficult, but not impossible. Not when there is more to you than your slugging percentage.

"You take a look at a kid like Jessica Mendoza, she's a good example of that," Eriksen said of a hitter with crossover star power. "Stacey Nuveman had that star appeal, also. But a lot of it has to do with personality. Those two people I just mentioned are very ebullient type people in front of people -- they make people smile. Chamberlain makes people smile."

Not opposing pitchers, mind you, but most everyone else. This is the person who says she likes to swing as hard as she can so she can give people what they want to see. She's the one bringing the crowd into the celebration after her home run against Washington, challenging them to raise the volume that much louder. She plays hard, she plays fun and she plays loud. It's what softball has always been to her.

"When I was younger, and it's funny because if you look at me it's kind hard to believe with how I carry myself on the field, but off the field when I was younger, I wasn't too confident," Chamberlain said. "I was always loud and kind of like the life of the party, I guess, but I really wasn't as confident as I seemed. But when I was on the field, that was my time to shine. I loved being on the field. That was my place, my safe haven, where I could express myself and exert all the confidence I could when I wasn't really feeling too confident finding myself when I was younger.

"I've always had that in the back of my head that the field is my true home where I can really express myself."

Any such inhibitions or insecurity beyond the field faded with her teenage years. What you see from Chamberlain between the lines now is what you get at all hours of the day. She has a lot of power. She has more personality.

"She's so much fun," Oklahoma's Destinee Martinez said. "Very outgoing, very easy to talk to. She's like a sister to me. But she's just tons of fun for our team. We all kind of look to her when we need a laugh, and she's always there for it."

What's missing from the picture, of course, is the Olympic stage players like Mendoza and Nuveman benefited from in building off their college profiles. Now the stars of that generation are gradually leaving the game. Playing for the national team remains a primary goal for Chamberlain, who will try out next week, but not even she is going to make the Pan-Am Games or the ISF World Championship matter like the Olympics mattered.

"I don't know where softball is going to take me," Chamberlain said. "I'm kind of open to everything. I don't want to stop playing the game anytime soon -- I'm really liking what it's doing for me right now.

"But at the same time, softball is opening some other doors for possible careers in broadcasting and other things [in the sports industry]."

Good for her, but better for softball if she has a bat in her hands for a long time to come. Two more seasons in an Oklahoma uniform are a start.

Just about the only silence there is when it comes to Chamberlain is the pause after Gasso is asked what kind of ceiling there is for a player who has already taken hitting to new heights.

"I don't know that," Gasso finally said. "I'm excited to find out, though."