Most Outstanding Player Lauren Haeger Leaves Lasting Legacy In WCWS Finale

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Lauren Haeger knows how to close a show.

In a championship series that deserved a rare Wednesday encore that was enough.

In the final game she pitched before putting on a Florida uniform for the first time as a freshman four years ago, Haeger led the United States to a gold medal in the biggest youth tournament in the sport. In the final game she pitched before taking off that Florida uniform one last time, she threw a complete game and allowed but a single run in the winner-take-all finale of the Women's College World Series. Just for good measure, she drove in the run that gave her team a lead it never relinquished in a 4-1 win in Game 3.

When that was the last thing fans saw her do in a World Series that drew record crowds to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium and record ratings on television, at least the last before the knees-to-chest leap of joy after the final out was recorded, no one will soon forget her.

"I think the easiest thing to say," Florida coach Tim Walton said, "Is she's one of the greatest players ever to play the game for the University of Florida Gators."

Haeger led the World Series in batting average. She led it in slugging percentage and on-base percentage. She led the week in wins and ERA. She even led the Gators out of the dugout Wednesday night to congratulate catcher Aubree Munro on a sacrifice bunt.

Haeger led the tournament in leading the tournament. And she led Florida to a summit only the programs which define the sport ever reached -- the first school other than Arizona and UCLA to win back-to-back championships.

In one of the easiest votes of all time, she was the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, joining Washington's Danielle Lawrie and Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts as the only players to win both that award and USA Softball Player of the Year. That's good company to keep.

"I just want everyone to know me as a person more than a softball player," Haeger said of her legacy. "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."

Watching from afar this week was Amber Freeman, A rookie with the USSSA Pride of National Pro Fastpitch who weeks ago completed her career at Arizona State, Freeman was the person behind the plate the last time Haeger threw a complete game to win a major championship, the gold-medal game of the 2011 ISF Junior World Championship.

"Lauren was very similar to how she is now," Freeman said this week of watching Haeger run roughshod over Oklahoma City. "She works ahead, she throws hard and she has a great offspeed that keeps the hitters off balance. From that point, that was 2011 so we were in freshmen in college, I just feel like as a pitcher she has grown tremendously.

"Back then she was good but now she's great, a great pitcher."

That she found greatness when it mattered most, and that for the second season in a row a Florida senior reached a fork in the road and chose a path that led to a championship, goes a long way toward explaining why she found herself, somewhat uncomfortably, at the bottom of a pile of Gators in the infield Wednesday night.

Reaching 71 career home runs, even in this day and age, requires a certain level of consistency over four seasons. Haeger was always a constant in the heart of the lineup for Florida, even if it wasn't as quite the Ruthian figure she cut with three home runs in the World Series. She never hit more than 20 home runs in a season or fewer than 14.

As solid as her pitching numbers were in her first three seasons, she was never the team's ace until this season. Physically, Walton said, both 2014 MOP Hannah Rogers and Haeger honed offspeed pitches as seniors, keys to their success against the best lineups late in the season. And in the case of Haeger, who as long as Rogers was around didn't have to devote her full focus or energy to the bullpen sessions, there was a dedication to the mental side.

"I think she bought in and really kind of changed her work ethic in the circle, in the bullpen," Walton said. "I won't say the whole year, but probably from about November on, she really bought into 'Hey, I've got a chance to pitch and pitch a lot this year.'"

When the SEC portion of Florida's schedule arrived this season and she was still splitting starts with other pitchers, including prime starts, she doubled down on that commitment and emerged a pitcher who didn't allow a run in the regional and super regional rounds.

One more crossroads appeared Wednesday in a series of opportunities for Michigan.

Haeger, hit on the hand herself in the bottom of the second inning, hit the first two batters she faced in the top of the third inning. It was an unusual lapse of control for someone who hit seven batters in 215 1/3 innings entering Game 3 (she would hit another batter before it was over). But she struck Abby Ramirez, otherwise a thorn in every team's side in the World Series, with that offspeed pitch. Sierra Lawrence popped up a rise ball measured at 67 miles per hour. And after Sierra Romero battled her way to an 11-pitch walk to load the bases, Haeger struck out fellow All-American Kelly Christner.

The perfect game disappeared that inning. The no-hitter and the shutout vanished in the fifth inning. Tera Blanco's single put Michigan's mark in that column on the scoreboard. She then came around to score on Romero's hit that cut the deficit to 4-1.

But try as they might on a night when they stranded eight runners and forced Florida's efficient ace to throw almost twice as many pitches in victory as she had a night earlier in defeat, the Wolverines couldn't solve the puzzle the way the Gators did by shortening their swings against Michigan starter Haylie Wagner.

"It was all Haeger tonight," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. "She got better when we got something going."

That much is not new. There has long been something about her and the moment.

In Team USA's first 10 games of that junior championship four years ago, Haeger made just three relief appearances as a pitcher (although she hit regularly), while four other pitchers divvied up the starts. When it came time for the gold-medal game, the likely choices to start were Dallas Escobedo, who was by then already an NCAA champion at Arizona State, or UCLA-bound Ally Carda. But Japan had already piled up hits against most of the American staff in its semifinal win that forced the American to go through the loser's bracket to earn a rematch for gold. For that game, Team USA coach Karen Johns liked that element of surprise with a new pitcher. She also just liked something about the way Haeger acted.

The decision to start Haeger for the first time with the gold medal on the line surprised just about everyone, from assistant coaches to teammates.

"I think I thought that day they would pitch maybe Dallas Escobedo or someone else on the staff," Freeman said. "But once Lauren got the ball and I was warming her up, I saw that she was ready to compete and do her best in the circle for the team. From that moment on I knew that was a great choice to pick her and give her the ball."

She shut down the same lineup that had just beaten the United States, mixing her speeds to keep the hitters off balance. She allowed one run. She won. Sound familiar?

Walton said that Tony Rico, one of the best known travel ball coaches in softball and an assistant on that team in South Africa told him that where there was nervousness in the eyes of other players, so soon after a setback, Haeger's eyes told a different story.

"She does have that," Walton said. "I think she has that big-game mentality, and I think that gained her some great experience. But there is a lot of God-given ability in there, and she's just learned how to really use that to her advantage."

It wasn't a one-woman show for the Gators in Oklahoma City, even if one woman put on a heck of a show. Look back over the week and there are countless moments when momentum could have tipped away from Florida if not for defensive plays by shortstop Kathlyn Medina (a glaring omission from the all-tournament team even though she didn't bat), centerfielder Kirsti Merritt or catcher Munro. All-American Kelsey Stewart was an offensive constant, but Nicole DeWitt and Taylore Fuller came up with hits of enormous significance, too. Aleshia Ocasio and Delanie Gourley teamed up to give Haeger a night off and win a championship series game in the process.

With the exception of Game 2 in the face of a brilliant pitching performance, Florida batters got on base as only they can. The Gators played sparking defense, as they did all season. The No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament played like the best team throughout the week.

This place has a way of sorting out the special players. Just because you don't win doesn't mean you aren't one, but rare is the case when the best player on the best team doesn't deserve a place among the game's iconic names.

We knew Haeger was good. Now we now we won't forget her.