Chamberlain's slam breaks NCAA record

It was only a matter of time.

From the day she first stepped to the plate as a freshman, when it took her all of two at-bats in her first game for the University of Oklahoma to hit a home run, it was only a matter of time until Lauren Chamberlain stood alone.

It was only a matter of time until someone with that mind for hitting, someone who sees a swing as much as a means by which to express herself as a mechanical action, accumulated more home runs than any woman who ever played college softball.

So it seemed like the pressure of the moment was weighing on Chamberlain in recent weeks, as if arriving on the doorstep of history left her suddenly too shy to knock. Well, it was only a matter of time until she rediscovered what became normal over the past four seasons.

Impressively, fantastically, joyously normal.

No one hit more home runs. But part of Chamberlain's legacy is that few, if any, in her sport ever stood so easily in so bright a spotlight.

Her record is a reflection of how a sport has changed. But so is she a reflection of that truth.

Playing her sixth game since her 90th home run tied former UCLA All-American Stacey Nuveman's NCAA record, Chamberlain hit a grand slam in the top of the fourth inning of Thursday's game against North Texas. Home run No. 91 made the record her own.

The record that stood for 13 years was arguably the most recognizable and meaningful offensive milestone in the sport because of both the innate allure of home runs and the stature of the record holder. And even after a wait for the record breaker, six game in which Chamberlain drew 12 walks and was hit by a pitch, she broke it despite playing fewer games than any of the next 17 players on the list.

Even as the single-season record for team home runs changed hands multiple times in the most prolific offensive era in the sport's history, Nuveman's individual career mark stood mostly unchallenged. Until Chamberlain got there, and kept going, only former Arizona catcher Stacie Chambers and Louisiana-Lafayette outfielder Danyele Gomez had reached even 80 career home runs this century (Chamberlain's teammate Shelby Pendley reached that threshold this season and is currently tied for sixth all time).

Nuveman said before the start of the season that she considered it a matter of when, not if, Chamberlain surpassed her (the Sooners star is also on pace to break Nuveman's record for career slugging percentage). The former Olympian said that if the record was to be broken, she was glad that Chamberlain would take possession.

"She's truly a pro in a college player's body," said Nuveman, now associate head coach at San Diego State. "I can appreciate that now probably more that I'm a coach because I know how hard that is to come by. Even at the very elite level in the college game, there are only so many who really understand how to work a count, how to live through the ups and downs of a season and stay consistent and stay steady. She's fun to watch. And she's humble.

"As a fan of the game and as someone that just loves the sport and what it gives and what it brings, she's worthy of all the praise and the accolades."

In something of a quirk of history, Nuveman's San Diego State is one of the few teams, barring another meeting in the NCAA tournament this season, against which Chamberlain played multiple games without hitting a home run. It is a short list because Chamberlain hit balls over the fence with remarkable frequency. The ball just seems to come off her bat differently.

She hit 30 home runs as a freshman, a mark only eight players of any class had ever reached. Then she hit 30 more home runs as a sophomore. If not for knee and back injuries that cost her nearly a third of her junior season and robbed her of her natural swing in many of the games in which she played at less than 100 percent, she might have caught Nuveman with a season to spare and put the record out of reach for a generation or two (as it stands now, Georgia's Alex Hugo and Michigan's Sierra Romero, both juniors, trail Chamberlain by 33 and 32 home runs, respectively).

This is a different era, and that's important. The composite bats swung by Chamberlain and every other college hitter much more friendly to offense than the aluminum ones used by Nuveman and previous record holders Laura Espinoza and Leah Braatz. Scouting, coaching, strength and conditioning all favor the modern athlete.

But the numbers, as prodigious and prolific as they are, don't make Chamberlain matter. She made the numbers matter.

That's why the record matters, too. Nuveman was one of the few names an entire generation knew from afar.

A new generation sees Chamberlain up close.

Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso, while admitting her bias, called Chamberlain the best hitter she ever saw. But she also described someone one of a kind in other ways.

"She's got a great sense of humor and just a very big personality," Gasso said. "And yet she is very caring for others. She understands how to use the platform she has been given to help others in our sport or others who are looking for encouragement. She speaks very well. She sings very well. She dances very well. She's just incredibly talented."

For goodness sake, with everything else swirling around her, Chamberlain sang the national anthem before the game in which she tied the record. And the night before that, even after a hitless game under the weight of expectations surrounding the record, she video bombed a televised postgame interview with teammate Georgia Casey, mugging in the background.

Chamberlain woke up Thursday with more than 30,000 Twitter followers, roughly three times as many as the combined totals of Jewell Loyd and Amanda Zahui B., the top two picks in the WNBA draft, and more than twice as many as Morgan Brian, the soccer phenomenon who recently won her second Hermann Trophy as college soccer's best player and made the United States national team that will compete in this summer's World Cup. Chamberlain's following is more than 43,000 strong on Instagram, closer to someone like Maya Moore than the typical college athlete.

That may not yet translate to mainstream recognition -- and an unanswered question is whether or not it can to the same degree it did for predecessors like Jennie Finch, Jessica Mendoza and Cat Osterman without the Olympic spotlight that softball may regain only temporarily, if at all -- but she is already as big as it gets within her world.

Chamberlain is not and never was the "next" anyone, that label traditionally a rite of passage for rising stars in any sport. She was always something new. She arrived at Oklahoma at a time when the team had one of the best players in recent memory in the college game, two-time national player of the year Keilani Ricketts, and another big hitter with a giant personality, Jessica Shults. And still, from the beginning, the loud kid carved out her own place, burnished the legend with moments like a walk-off home run in the opening game of the national championship series and emerged a new kind of figure for a new generation.

It is because of what she does, yes, but also the joy with which she does it and her willingness to share the ride.

"Some people shy away from it, but I'm pretty outgoing, and I like interacting with people who care about softball, especially younger people," Chamberlain said earlier this season of her social media presence. "It's fun for me and it keeps the game exciting. I think that with the help of social networks -- I wasn't a big fan of them at first, and there have been times where I wanted to get rid of them -- but I love it, and I think it's a good way to reach people who play softball and people who don't, to bring awareness to the sport."

She makes people notice her and the sport she plays but does so without artifice. It's not a persona. It's just her.

It was only a matter of time until she remembered that and claimed her record in grand fashion.