Lady Vols ready to host NCAA regionals at Lee Stadium
When Lauren Gibson returned to campus last August after her summer USA Softball campaign, she made a couple of promises.
“She came back and told us she was really committing herself to excellence and to do even better than she did her junior year,’’ said Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly.
But Gibson, facing her senior season with the Lady Vols, made another pledge — to herself.
“I was just wanting to have fun,’’ Gibson said this week. “What I promised myself is this year I was going to go out and enjoy every game. Just enjoy the game.’’
She apparently made good on both promises.
The power-hitting second baseman was named SEC player of the year and is one of 10 finalists (along with teammate Raven Chavanne) for national player of the year.
She also helped lead the Lady Vols (44-10) to another NCAA tournament regional that starts Friday at Lee Stadium.
It’s almost a given Gibson will impact the 6 p.m. game against Longwood (41-18) in some way.
She’s batting .429 and drove in a team-high 66 runs.
The 5-foot-6 package generates surprising power as she set a UT season record with 18 home runs. She clubbed three in one game against Ole Miss on April 26, something no Lady Vol had ever done.
“I don’t really know where the power comes from,’’ Gibson said with a laugh. “Everybody always tells me I have good bat speed so that’s what I’ll go with.’’
She also made the All-SEC defensive team, a mission dating to her freshman year when she hating being pulled in the seventh inning to get a more trusty glove on the field.
“She’s had an amazing year,’’ Weekly said. “She runs the infield. She knows what’s happening all the time.
“Shes just a joy to coach.’’
Speaking of joy, Gibson did some soul-searching last summer and determined she didn’t have as much as she used to.
After a scorching All-SEC sophomore season for the Lady Vols, Gibson focused her tunnel vision on exceeding her production as a junior.
Instead, her numbers dropped off.
“I put so much pressure on myself, I think it harmed me,’’ she said.
“You struggle and know you can do so much better so you beat yourself up.’’
This year she’s been beating up the other guys — with a smile in her heart.
“You’re here to have fun,’’ she said. “This isn’t a job. This is something I’ve been doing since I was little and I know how to do it.’’
Gibson’s approach to softball sounds suspiciously like a job. For the past two summers she’s played with the USA national team, leaving little break between her collegiate seasons.
During whatever break she has she heads home to Pasadena, Md. But not to escape from softball.
“We have batting cages in the basement and the backyard,’’ she said. “It’s quality time with my dad. We both love the game so much.’’
Gibson batted third for Team USA last summer and hit .500. During a tournament in Canada she faced Yukiko Ueno of Japan, generally regarded as the world’s best pitcher.
“I watched it happen,’’ Weekly said. “Lauren hit a two-run home run off her in the seventh to tie the game and then comes back and gets a hit to win it.
“She really had a breakout year.’’
And kept the momentum going in a Lady Vols uniform. Now her mission is to get back to the Women’s College World Series for the third time in her career.
Now that would really be fun.