By Colleen Thomas, The Baltimore Sun
7:03 PM EDT, July 1, 2013
Lauren Gibson watched from the dugout as her close friend ended her collegiate softball career.
Keilani Ricketts drove in four runs in Oklahoma's national championship-clinching game in the Women's College World Series against Tennessee on June 4, but it was hard for Gibson to be completely crushed. A week later, the Chesapeake-AA graduate would become teammates with the player who just ended her four years at Tennessee.
As teammates on last year's USA Softball Women's National Team, the Tennessee second baseman and the Oklahoma pitcher became great friends, bonding over gold medals and road trips. But with this year's national championship on the line, Gibson had to focus on beating Ricketts — a common occurrence for Gibson as the Volunteers beat some of her other Team USA teammates en route to the Women's College World Series.
"We all have a really close relationship," Gibson said of Team USA. "It's hard to go out to play against some people knowing that they're your friends. When you're playing against them, they're your enemy, but at the same time, we're such good friends.
"Keilani is one of the best pitchers I've played against. It kinda stinks playing against her because she is so good, but it's always a challenge."
Now that her collegiate career is over, though, the 21-year-old is Ricketts' teammate once again. On June 14, Gibson was named to the 18-member 2013 USA Softball Women's National Team, which included both Ricketts and Gibson's Tennessee teammate, Raven Chavanne. The U.S. team begins play in the World Cup of Softball VIII in Oklahoma City on July 11.
This is Gibson's third year on the national team after finishing an illustrious career with Tennessee. The Pasadena native was a three-time NFCA First Team All-American, the 2013 SEC Player of the Year, and a Top 10 finalist for USA Softball Player of the Year.
She was as good in high school, too — just at a different position.
Gibson could be found on the mound at Chesapeake-AA, where she led the team to two consecutive state championships, pitching no-hitters both times and twice earning Baltimore Sun All-Metro Player of the Year honors. She finished her high school career with a 62-10 record and 1.10 ERA, and at the plate, had an over-.500 career batting average — a result of her ability to put the ball wherever she wanted.
"She did slaps, she did bunts, home runs," said Chesapeake-AA coach Don Ellenberger. "You wouldn't believe the talent she has."
Though she was dominant from the circle, Gibson's 5-foot-6 frame wasn't suited for pitching at the college level. On travel teams, Gibson would play second base — the position she was planning to play in college — and at 12 years old, she taught herself to be a switch hitter to advance her game.
Her numbers wowed college coaches and caught the eye of Volunteer head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly. But when coaches came to watch her play, they had trouble believing someone Gibson's size was able to generate so much power.
"When we first went to the ball field to see her, I thought we were looking for someone else," Karen Weekly said. "I was shocked that somebody that small was such a great hitter."
But her size didn't keep her from dominating in college. Gibson had a breakout sophomore year at Tennessee, batting .420 with 63 RBIs and earning her first All-America honor, and followed up with excellent junior and senior seasons. She finished with a .361 career average, plus 46 home runs and 216 RBIs.
Her improvement was most evident her senior season, where after two years on Team USA and three years under the Weeklys at Tennessee, Gibson finally learned to relax in the batter's box.
"We could really see a maturity as a hitter with her mental approach this year," Karen Weekly said. "You know a hitter's really getting it when they understand hitting, not just the physical mechanics of their swing, but what pitchers deliver, trying to go deep in the count, try to work the pitcher and try to be more patient and make to get the right pitch."
Though Gibson expects to put up similar numbers this summer with Team USA, especially after leading the team in batting average last summer (.500) and bringing home two gold medals at the World Cup of Softball the past two years, she's learned to not stress about it.
"I used to put so much pressure on myself to try and be the best," Gibson said. "I think they have helped me just notice, 'You're on the U.S. team — you are one of the best. Just have fun now.'"
And her coaches won't disagree.
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