From backup to leader of Champions

Not many have come so far in such a short period of time. Although it isn’t like Lauren Haeger was unused before the SEC season started for these eventual National Champion Gators, but she was probably third on the depth chart for a pitching staff that started strong, but hit a snag in SEC play.

That is just part of what makes Lauren Haeger’s story both spectacular and worthy of great respect. Not only did she never give up on everything when things weren’t going her way. she bought in to head coach Tim Walton’s plan and she pushed herself to make a difference for this team.

In the end, her drive helped lead the Gators to a repeat of their National Championship from a year ago.

After a 28-0 start to the season including the first game of the SEC series against eventual Women’s College World Series participant LSU, the Gators lost the last two games of that series giving up 24 runs in the process. Walton of course not happy with where his pitchers were at, decided to make a move to Haeger, especially since the young woman who started the National Championship clinching game a year ago was supposed to be counted on before the season started.

Haeger wasn’t living up to things needed in the preseason and early in the year, but she had come around.

"At the time Lauren was throwing the ball good, but she wasn't throwing the ball like she is now,” Walton said last week about the time following that LSU series. “And after that weekend or even kind of leading up to that weekend, she really said, ‘Coach, I really worked hard and I want Friday nights’. And I said, ‘well, prove it to me. Go out and make sure your bullpens are good and go out there and win ballgames’. And she has.

With his acumen as a coach and now with a roster he can do a lot of things with, Walton has a tendency to be a no nonsense guy, especially when it comes to his team.

“I call it like it is,” Walton said. “We were going a different direction. She wanted it to go the other direction and she earned it. And I think that's what makes me the most proud of somebody who can have a meeting with a coach, call a meeting with a coach and say this is what I want and I'm willing to work for it. And for that like I said she's been rewarded for it.

All of the hard work has indeed paid off. Record after record has fallen. She is the only player in college softball history to have both 60+ home runs and 60+ wins. But, that wasn’t good enough because she put it all but out of reach by finishing with 73 wins and 71 home runs. She finished 32-2 on the season for a team that won 60 games total.

She went 4-1 in the Women’s College World Series and gave up a total of five runs in the five games she pitched. Amazingly she had seven RBI in the six games she batted, a series best for any team.

“Can't say enough about her season, what she's meant in the circle, at the plate, and in the locker room,” Walton said following the series clinching win. “And the confidence and work ethic she brought this year has been tremendous. And being rewarded with Player of the Year but also with the national championship trophy to go with that and a ring and SEC championship…”

But of all of this and the trophies that go with it, Walton says he will remember Haeger the person, more than Haeger the player. It is a real sign of a team leader and the better the leader, the better the team. It showed with the eventual crowning of these ladies as National Champions.

“What stands in my mind is what her dad said to me in the recruiting process, in that Lauren is always everyone's favorite player on the team, not because she hits home runs or strikes everybody out, but because of her personality,” Walton said. “She came to us speaking five or six different languages and none of which any of us understand. They're not written languages. They're all languages amongst her teammates, and all of her teams. And everybody from Team U.S.A. to her high school team to her travel ball team, to now her college team and soon to be her pro team, she's always the most likable person on the team. She's fun-loving. She just has fun, and doesn't really take anything too serious.”

As far as the program goes and the lasting legacy that Hager will leave, all of her accomplishments do ring true.

“But, the mark that she's going to leave on our program, once she graduates next year, she'll have a big sign like all the rest of the greatest Gators in the program's history because that's what she is. She's one of the greatest Gators that ever played and put the uniform on. We talked about the person. We talked about the player. We talked about the student side of things. And she's really bought into us. And I think I'm proud of her for all she's accomplished. But I'm more proud of her about how she's going to move on and be a great human being and she'll have a special part in my family, because my family loves her and loves what she's done. And I think the easiest thing to say is she's one of the greatest players to ever play the game for the University of Florida Gators.”

Haeger herself, as would be expected, is less concerned about all the sports accomplishments.

“I mean, I just want everyone to know me as a person more than a softball player,” she said about her legacy after moving on. “And that when you work hard, good things happen for you. When you really buy into something -- I bought into what Coach Walton does and did. And it worked out. I just am so thankful to be a Gator and it's been a great time.”

Her play on the field actually reflects her personality and ideals off of the field. Unselfish and willing to do anything for her team, Haeger with all of her power and ability to hit the ball at the plate was intentionally walked twice in the last game of her college career. It could have frustrated most big time hitters, but not someone that has bought in like she has.

“Not at all,” she said about any frustration with being walked intentionally. “Coach Ron (Walton) always told me to take your walks. I'll take my walks. I was having a really great tournament. I was seeing the ball really well. And we would have done the exact same thing, to whoever was hitting as well as I was on that side, too. No, I'm very proud of the way I hit.”

The National Player of the Year and now repeat national Champion Lauren Haeger, reached the bases a staggering 16 times in six WCWS games. She will hit the ball over the outfield wall, or she will take her place at first base. This Gator team just needed her to get on base more often than not and she did that. That’s why we can call her and her teammates champions.

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