It wasn’t just Lauren Gibson’s stats that stood out to Chesapeake coach Don Ellenberger. She was the girl with the batting cage in her backyard who’d hit and pitch in her basement worked her way to glory, who’d learned every position. Her work ethic set her apart.
“Best player I’ve ever seen in Anne Arundel County in all my years,” Ellenberger said.
After four years at Chesapeake, where the pitcher-infielder tossed no-hitters in the 2007 and 2008 state finals to pave the way for back-to-back state titles, Gibson chose to attend Tennessee over a slew of other perennial softball powers such as Oklahoma.
In her senior season for the Volunteers, Gibson was named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, batting .401/.538/.802 that season with a career-best 19 home runs, 14 doubles and 68 RBIs.
She was a scoring fiend during her homer-laden senior season, which was highlighted by an epic outing against Mississippi in which Gibson went 4-for-5 with three home runs, a double, nine RBIs and four runs.
“When I think about her, I think about her as a clutch-hitter,” said 17-year Tennessee coach Ralph Weekly. “She epitomized ‘quick to it, long through it.’ ”
At the top of the decade, the Pasadena native ascended to the highest level of softball, making four trips to the World Cup of Softball with the U.S. National Team. With Gibson in the infield, the Americans captured the gold in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015. The 2011 Pan American champion also claimed two International Softball Federation silver medals.
For becoming perhaps the most successful softball player this region’s ever had, Gibson will be inducted into the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame on Oct. 17.
“I feel very lucky. I know there's a ton of athletes from every sport, especially softball, that are looked at for this,” she said.
But with that life behind her, for now, Gibson’s new one is just beginning.
She fashioned her style of play after Ken Griffey Jr., and it paid off. But if she were a man, she’d be in Seattle, wearing Mariners gear, or Houston, or Boston, or Baltimore.
It’s something she’s acutely aware of.
“I wish that's how it was. And I know that it's not. I hope that one day, we can get softball to that level. That's why I wanted to be a part of the world for as long as I could,” Gibson said.
The sport was a loyal companion for so many years; her days were enveloped by it, practicing and working out with her teammates, prepping for game days.
But she had to “grow up.” At the time of her college years, softball had been just ousted from the Olympics (along with baseball) after the 2008 Games. Unlike baseball, though, and like so many other women’s sports, the Olympics was the very ceiling for softball. Without the Olympics, the top was the World Cup of Softball, which she hit.
“Personality-wise, I'm a very competitive person,” Gibson said. “That's something that's quite different. Now I don't get to compete as much.”
After graduate assistant coaching at South Florida and then moving on to assistant coach at Bethune-Cookman for a year, Gibson came home. She was able to teach softball lessons at the Columbia sports facility Reaper’s Den for a while then took a job with the Department of Defense.
Gibson funneled her competitive spirit into the government softball league. The divisions of teams aren’t department versus department; they’re mixed. She doesn’t know her teammates. For a world-caliber athlete, it was an adjustment.
“When I was first going to play, my mom and dad were both, 'Now this is just for fun. Just enjoy yourself,’ ” she said, laughing. “When you've played at that level, you've become your worst enemy. I was always trying to correct myself, whereas this is just to go out, meet people, meet co-workers, that kind of thing.”
Since her full-time playing days ceased, Gibson’s opened the door to other sports as well. She wanted to try football, joining a co-ed two-hand-touch team where she plays as a mix of linebacker and wide receiver.
Years after her college career ended, Weekly remembers Gibson first and foremost as that kind of raring competitor though.
She wouldn’t have been on Team USA in 2011 if she hadn’t been.
“She’d been an outstanding performer last year, and they knew it,” Weekly said.
A spot opened up just a few days before U.S. team tryouts, and as the story goes, the selection committee gave Gibson a call.
“She was a gamer, somebody who was always ready to go and produce in the clutch,” Weekly said.
At 27, Gibson hasn't even surmounted the age that’s considered physical prime in softball. She’s played with the idea of making the return to the sport for the Olympics.
After failed attempts, the International Olympic Committee finally voted softball back into the Games in 2016, in time for 2022.
But Gibson’s not so sure it’s the best option for her now.
“I'd like to think there's always a chance, but I think at some point, I decided I need to, I guess — I hate that word, 'grow up.' I had to get a job,” she said.
For her, the idea that there will be another generation of women who will be able to compete on the international stage is good enough. She looks to Pat Summitt, the face of Title IX, as an inspiration.
“I guess what I mean is that without the teams I was on, with Val Arioto, Michelle Moultrie, Raven Chavanne ... If we hadn't stuck it out, there'd be no USA softball, which means there'd be no Olympics,” she said.
College coaching, she found, was a more unsteady livelihood than she could muster at the moment. But Gibson is at terms with the place she’s in. Her new life is just barely starting and she wants to keep working to keep building it as hard as she worked on softball. Once she has, Gibson said, she’ll possibly even try to coach around the county.
“I was counting on being in the softball world forever,” she said.
Ellenberger believes she “belongs teaching the game.”
“If she did have a team of her own, whether it be private or public, it’d be an honor to play against her,” he said. “We’d do whatever we could to try to beat her, but that would be difficult, because her teams would definitely be ready.”
She’ll maybe even try to coach Chesapeake softball, some day. Her old coach would like that.