Lauren Burke is no longer a local secret.
The true freshman, who led Marist High to a state championship last June, came through on the national stage to help keep Oregon's hopes for a NCAA softball title alive during the top-seeded Ducks' 6-1 victory over No. 16 Kentucky on Friday night in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,522 at Jane Sanders Stadium.
Burke hit a two-run single in the fourth inning to give Oregon its first lead of the Eugene Super Regional.
“I love watching her up there,” senior third baseman Jenna Lilley said of Burke’s unflappable approach at the plate. “She’s free, she competes.”
Oregon’s four-run fourth inning provided plenty of breathing room for Miranda Elish (23-1), who allowed two hits and an unearned run over seven innings to make sure the Ducks (51-8) evened the best-of-three series.
The winner of Saturday’s decisive Game 3 (6 p.m., ESPN) will advance to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
“You just have to keep your heartbeat between 60 and 80,” Elish said. “Or just at 80.”
After DJ Sanders and Haley Cruse drew walks and Shannon Rhodes singled, Burke calmly drove the ball up the middle, a trait coach Mike White said she shares with former Oregon all-American shortstop Nikki Udria.
On the play, Rhodes also came around to score on a Kentucky throwing error to give the Pac-12 champions a 3-0 advantage.
“Lauren, I don’t know if she’s here half the time,” White said of Burke’s quiet demeanor. “She just doesn’t feel (pressure). She just wants to go swing the bat, she doesn’t overthink things.”
Burke, who played on White’s club team as a kid before he took the Oregon coaching job in 2010, is now 5-for-7 with seven RBIs this postseason. She hit two pinch-hit home runs in the regional and made her first start Friday as the designated hitter before moving to left field.
“She’s done an exceptional job, she’s squaring up on everything,” Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson said. “You have to tip your hat to her.”
Lilley added a two-out, two-run double in the sixth to give the Ducks a five-run lead.
“It was there, and I didn’t want it to be,” Lilley said of knowing her collegiate career will be over with a loss Saturday, just as it would have been had the team not bounced back Friday. “You have to acknowledge that’s the reality. We do everything we can for that not to happen.”
Elish induced three ground-ball outs in the first inning one night after Alex Martens hit a three-run home run off Megan Kleist to set the stage for Kentucky’s 9-6 victory.
The sophomore flamethrower struck out the last two batters in the second and struck out the side in the third. Elish hit 71 mph on the radar gun on several occasions while finishing with seven strikeouts and no walks.
“Miranda threw one heck of a performance to keep us in this,” said White, who woke up at 4:30 a.m. Friday worrying about how his team would respond. “You could tell we were fighting for our lives.”
Lilley made an error in the fourth, which led to a run for the Wildcats on a sacrifice fly by Martens, but the third baseman atoned for the miscue with a spectacular play to end the fifth.
The heart of Kentucky’s lineup — Katie Reed, Abbey Cheek and Martens — went 6-for-11 with three home runs and nine RBIs in Game 1. Elish held the trio to a combined 1-for-8 with one RBI in game 2.
“Miranda is a great pitcher,” Martens said. “She was pounding the zone really hard. Then at the end she was going more change-up. That had us off balance.”
The Wildcats (35-20) were 4-0 in the postseason and outscored the opposition 37-7 before facing Elish.
“Oregon did a great job responding today,” Lawson said. “I thought their pitcher looked great and did a good job pounding the zone.”
White did not tip his hand on whether Kleist or Elish will start Saturday. He did say he was proud of Elish for not making him visit the circle and keeping her emotions in check throughout her most important performance of the season to date.
“Obviously we’re happy to still be here,” White said. “That was the main goal today.”