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Klein, Hobbs overcome injury to lead Tigers

Open a road atlas to the page near the front with the map of the United States and an almost infinite array of ways to reach Oklahoma City pop off the page. Every bold four-lane interstate and gray country highway presents the possibility of a different path to the city that serves as home each spring to the Women's College World Series and each represents a different story for whoever travels it.

Leslie Klein and Kristen Hobbs found their way there during their first season on the field for LSU. Four years later, their search for a return route has taken them on a sometimes arduous and sometimes glorious journey neither could ever have envisioned when they first set foot on campus in Baton Rouge.

And as No. 6 LSU prepares to host No. 1 Tennessee (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2; Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in a three-game SEC showdown series that may well serve as a preview of coming attractions in Oklahoma City, both players know the journey is nearing an end.

"When I first got to LSU, I was really excited that I knew the four years were going to be eventful, especially with LSU being the program that it was," Hobbs mused. "But it's so weird now, because it went so fast and to know I graduate in less than three weeks."

Klein and Hobbs, along with senior ace Emily Turner, are the elder statesmen and co-captains on this year's team. Chasing her third year of All-America honors, Klein ranks among the team leaders in a host of offensive categories, pacing the Tigers with a .404 batting average, seven home runs, 49 RBIs and 20 stolen bases. Along with the likes of Arizona State's Kaitlin Cochran and Cal Poly's Lisa Modglin, she's one of the most complete outfielders in college softball, and she'll leave as one of the most accomplished players in LSU history.

"One word: stud," Hobbs said when asked to describe Klein as a player. "She is just an awesome player, and she is one of those people that I wouldn't want anyone else there in center field or in the lineup."

And after hitting just two home runs in her first three seasons, Hobbs has emerged as a middle-of-the-order threat behind Klein, hitting .297 with seven home runs and 20 RBIs for a team averaging nearly six runs per game.

But like the outline of a road snaking across the map, where an inch covering miles of mountain roads or urban congestion is indistinguishable from the flat grassland of the plains, the numbers don't tell the whole story for Klein and Hobbs. To understand what it really means for both players to be such key figures in this weekend's series and the race for a national championship, you have to go back far beyond the season opener.

A versatile athlete whose father recognized her talents and pushed her not to waste those gifts, Klein lettered in four sports in high school. After realizing that at 5-foot-7, her height presented an extra obstacle in pursuing basketball or volleyball at the highest level, she settled on softball as a means to a college scholarship and came to LSU in 2003 as one of the most highly touted prospects and a player poised to make an immediate impact.

Then came the first detour.

In preseason, before ever playing a game for LSU, she succumbed to a moment of indecision over whether to dive for a ball in practice and felt her knee give way when she tried to pull up to field it on a bounce. Unsure at first what had happened, she found out hours later that she had completely torn her ACL in her right knee and would miss the season.

"I just broke down crying," Klein said. "I couldn't believe it was really happening to me. … And of course I was freaked out, because I'd never been through surgery before, and then to hear the whole procedure kind of really scared me. And to know how long it took to get back on track was very frustrating. It kind of set me back and raised questions in my mind of whether or not I was going to be the player I used to be. I was definitely nervous coming back, saying, 'What if it happens again?'"

Putting those questions aside, Klein followed a path all too familiar to female athletes -- putting in the hours, days, weeks and months of rehab required after surgery to repair the shredded ligament. And in the spring of 2004, as Hobbs arrived for her freshman season, Klein finally took the field for the Tigers as a redshirt freshman and hit .345 with 14 home runs for a team that won three games in the World Series before falling to Cal in an elimination game.

But even if Klein's concerns about regaining her form proved unfounded, her fears of once again providing a canvas for the surgeon's scalpel proved prophetic when she collided with a teammate in the outfield during fall practice in 2004 and felt a familiar pop in her right knee.

"When I went down, I said, 'I'm done.'" Klein recalled. "The first words out of my mouth were, 'I'm done; it's torn again'"

Klein admitted she had some initial doubts about whether she could deal with another round of exhaustive rehab and more time on the bench, but she credited both coach Yvette Girouard and athletic director (and former LSU baseball coach) Skip Bertman with convincing her that she would forever regret not making the effort to try and finish out her career at the school. Knowing she had already used up her redshirt season, she attacked rehab with an almost manic intensity and returned to action in less than four months. (ACL surgery usually requires at least six months of rehab.)

"I kind of threw myself out on the field earlier than I should have," Klein said. "But that's just me being really frustrated watching other people playing when I knew I could be out there playing. … I was mad. I was kind of mad, because I knew I had rehabbed so hard and I had done everything I could have possibly done."

The results were predictable, if still better than half the outfielders in the country, as Klein's production tailed off to a .310 average with no home runs and four stolen bases as LSU missed the NCAA Tournament with a 31-23 record in 2005. It wasn't until last season that the old Klein resurfaced, as she earned third-team All-American honors after hitting .396 with nine home runs and 18 stolen bases.

Just about the time Klein was finally getting back to full strength in the months leading up to last season, Hobbs found herself at the crossroads of her own career in Baton Rouge. A part-time starter at catcher her first two seasons, she discovered she had torn a ligament in her throwing elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. (It's now known in LSU softball circles as "Tammy Jane surgery" after former LSU baseball player Greg Smith bestowed the new name on the procedure in Hobbs' honor.)

With a rehab process that doctors told her would take anywhere from eight months to a full year, Hobbs faced an uncertain future in a sport that had defined her path in life up to that point. Even as she lived out a quintessential high school experience as student body president and homecoming queen at Royal Palm Beach High School in Florida, softball was already driving her in a different direction than many of her peers.

"I started to branch away, I'd say probably in high school," Hobbs said. "Just because my high school team, we didn't have many girls go D-I, so once I started getting recruited, I knew I was kind of branching away from the high school atmosphere and really getting big into it and really dedicating my time to travel ball."

As months of rehab dragged on, slowly restoring strength in the elbow following surgery, Hobbs still felt that passion.

"I wasn't going to hang it up; I was going to wait until my arm fell off," she laughed.

What pushes Hobbs, Klein or so many other college athletes in that situation? For Hobbs, athletic excellence had already provided an education and all the opportunities associated with it. No professional riches waited at the end of rainbow if she worked her way back and returned to the field. At best, she would have one season at something close to 100 percent. At worst, all the work -- done in conjunction with the normal demands of a college student's academic life -- would be for naught.

But the moment, whether it's the adrenaline rush of bat connecting with ball, the collective joy of a game-winning hit or the camaraderie of a sleepily silent walk to the weight room at 6 in the morning, represents something impossible to surrender for so many athletes.

"I wouldn't say it was hard to keep the passion, or the love for softball, because it was something I had played for my whole life," Hobbs said. "So it wasn't something that was going to go away. But it was hard to continue making myself feel like I was part of the team. As much as my teammates were there for me the whole time, it was just hard to sit out that whole season and catch in the bullpen, because I could do that. And try to live in the moment with my team after they had a big win -- sometimes it was hard to feel like you were a part of it.

"It wasn't hard to keep the passion, I wouldn't say that. Because I think if I had lost it, I wouldn't have come back to try and play again."

Perhaps it isn't heroic or even inspirational, but it is undeniably compelling. In the end, sports are both fleeting and futile.

"We're told every day never to take a day for granted," Klein said. "There are people dying and anything can happen -- you can get in a car accident or whatever. So we're always told that. But I don't think you can really tell somebody what it would feel like, knowing that it's about to be over. Being Dani [Hofer] and being a sophomore, she probably goes, 'Oh man, I have two years left.' I don't think she realizes how fast it goes.

"From firsthand, I was told, from Steph Hill and Camille [Harris], 'It flies by, don't waste your time, don't be lazy, make it your best year.' But you just kind of put that in the back of your head, and you're like, 'No it doesn't.'"

But time does fly by, receding into the distance like mile markers on an empty highway. And ultimately, there is no better measure of how much the destination means than the price paid along the way. For Klein, Hobbs and so many like them, scars are snapshots of times and places that couldn't last forever, but were worth holding onto for as long as possible.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.