The spotlight keeps getting brighter, but Lauren Burke’s approach to softball hasn’t changed since the first time coach Mike White called her off the bench as a kid.
Entering top-seeded Oregon’s first game Thursday against No. 8 Arizona State at the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, Burke leads the Ducks with a postseason batting average of .556 (5-for-9) with two home runs and seven RBIs.
White first coached the local phenom on his under-10 team, the Eugene Thunder, when he called on a 7-year-old Burke to help fill out his shorthanded lineup.
“Lauren just wants to go and swing the bat,” White said. “She doesn’t overthink things.”
During the Eugene Regional, White used the true freshman as a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning against Albany and Drake. Burke came through with two-run home runs in both games and was named to the all-region team on the strength of two memorable at-bats.
“She’s the best pinch-hitter I think I’ve ever seen,” senior third baseman Jenna Lilley said. “It’s so fun to watch her because she goes up there, and I think like coach White said in another interview the other day, ‘Empty head, full bat.’ That is her to a tee.
“I tell her sometimes it looks like she’s about to go shopping, but then she goes up there and gets freaking clutch game-winning hits. That’s Lauren and she’s awesome. It’s been really awesome to watch her embrace that role and just do her thing out there.”
Burke would probably use some different adjectives to describe her approach, but she understands what White was trying to say.
The idea is to be as carefree at the plate during a pressure-packed NCAA Tournament at-bat as she was during those halcyon days with the Eugene Thunder.
“I’ve kind of just let loose,” Burke said. “I’m seeing the ball really well and I haven’t been thinking too much. It is tough coming off the bench (to pinch-hit), but I know everyone in the dugout has confidence in me.”
Burke has scored five runs during Oregon’s postseason run, which matches Lilley, the Ducks’ leadoff hitter, for the team lead.
After the Ducks’ 9-6 loss to Kentucky in first game of the super regional, Burke was thrust into the starting lineup and came up to bat with the bases loaded in the fourth inning of a scoreless Game 2. The roar from the relieved fan base at Jane Sanders Stadium may have registered on the Richter Scale after she delivered a two-run single.
The clutch hit opened the floodgates for Oregon, which outscored the Wildcats 17-2 in winning the final two games to advance to the WCWS.
“That was pretty cool. It was special,” Burke said of the reaction from the capacity crowd of 2,522, which included the familiar faces of her family and friends. “Our fans were so loud, and it was surreal to hear that.”
A year ago, Burke was getting ready to lead Marist High to the Class 5A state championship. She went 3-for-5 with three runs scored in the title game, a 12-7 win over top-seeded Dallas.
Now Burke, who is hitting .362 this season with 14 starts and 33 appearances, has emerged as a key contributor on an Oregon team determined to bring the program’s first national title back to Eugene.
“It’s been challenging, but I’m really grateful. It has made me a lot better as a person,” Burke said of adjusting from prep star to college role player during her first season with the Ducks. “My biggest adjustment was probably being able to be mentally tough in the box. It’s hard because we’re facing the best of the best.”
Burke has 15 RBIs and scored 14 runs this season, which means most of her production has come during the most important time of the year.
“Lauren Burke has done a great job this year. She’s put in a lot of work to be ready for those situations,” senior catcher Gwen Svekis said. “I pinch-hit my freshman year, and it is not easy. She makes it look easy.
“I think she’s doing a great job, and it’s going to set her up for a bright future in this program for sure.”
Burke, who was a shortstop at Marist during her senior season and mostly plays right field for the Ducks, said she hasn’t thought about which position she will likely play in 2019. Lilley, shortstop DJ Sanders and second baseman Lauren Lindvall are all out of eligibility as soon as Oregon’s season ends.
“I tried not to put too many expectations on myself,” Burke said. “I just wanted to come in and be the best teammate I could and help the team win the national championship.”
The spotlight is really going to heat up in Oklahoma City, where the Ducks landed on Monday. Burke was still calm, cool and collected after Tuesday’s practice.
“Oklahoma is good,” she said. “It’s pretty surreal to be here, but it’s exciting.”