GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Fred Haeger coached his son’s tee ball team back in the day, he used to start practice with hitting drills. That way, he knew the tykes would show up on time. Four-year-old baseball players, after all, love to hit.
So did his 3-year-old daughter.
Little Lauren always accompanied Dad to practice. Always wanted her turn, too.
“If the boys were going to hit, she was going to hit,” her father recalled. “She’d step in there, take her cuts and was every bit as good as the boys were.”
All grown up now, Lauren is still taking her cuts, only these days with a softball bat and wearing a Florida Gators uniform. And she’s every bit the masher of her little kid days, but now she’s doing it on the big stage, with a chance to play the biggest stage of all.
Haeger, the sophomore slugger from Peoria, Ariz., has terrorized pitchers in the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons. It’s a trend both she and the second-ranked Gators (55-7) hope continues when Florida hosts UAB (40-17) in this weekend’s Super Regional at Pressly Stadium. The winner of the best two-of-three format advances to the Women’s College World Series next week at Oklahoma City.
“We’re just two wins away,” Haeger said. “It’s crazy how exciting this is.”
She gets credit for a nice chunk of the insanity.
In win over Hampton and two against USF in last weekend’s sub-regional, Haeger batted .571 with a home run, double and nine of her team’s 19 RBI over the three games. Fold those numbers in with UF’s four NCAA games last season --when as a freshman she hit .538 with three homers and five RBI --and Haeger has smashed the NCAA competition at a combined .550 clip (11-for-20) to go with four homers and 14 runs plated.
“There’s no question tournament play is made for her,” Gators coach Tim Walton said. “She thrives on it.”
As an All-America prospect in Arizona, Haeger led Deer Valley High to the state championship, blasting the go-ahead homer then striking out the side to clinch the title. As a member of the Team USA, she pitched a five-hit shutout, fanning eight batters, in the gold-medal game of the Junior World Championships in Cape Town, South Africa, a 5-0 defeat of Japan.
“I can tell you she’s always savored those moments,” Fred Haeger said. “She’s pretty fearless.”
There’s just something about that instant in time where the outcome is in the balance. Over the years, Haeger hasn’t always delivered in the clutch, but she’s never shied away from the challenge (or pressure), either.
“It’s like there’s this adrenaline rush,” Haeger said. “Those kinds of situations don’t make me nervous at all. My competitiveness won’t let me, I guess. I want to win so badly.”
Must be contagious.
The 2013 Gators weren’t supposed to be this good. This was supposed to be a rebuilding season for Walton, who figured to be searching for signs of growth as he navigated a brutal non-conference schedule to start the year and continued into a rugged Southeastern Conference slate.
But what Walton and his players quickly found out -- starting a season 15-0 can be quite the beacon of hope -- was that this version of the Gators had a collective, passionate work ethic to go with spectacular chemistry. Oh, and they knew how to win games, despite a roster that lacked some talent in numbers that Walton’s previous teams stockpiled.
“We’ve won 55 games this year, and it feels like we’ve had 55 MVPs,” Walton said.
Great defense, patience at the plate, a little bit of power and pretty good pitching have been the calling cards for the team that surprised the SEC by winning both the regular season title and league tournament.
Looking for true superstars here? Pitcher Hannah Rogers, with 31 wins and a 1.51 ERA, qualifies. So does freshman second baseman Kelsey Stewart, hitting .392 with 85 hits, 59 runs and 34 stolen bases.
And then there’s Haeger, who’s dominated at the plate and on the mound.
To go with a .333 average, Haeger has hit 18 homers (the school record is 22) and has 70 RBI (the record is 80). Her slugging percentage of .713 is nearly 133 points more than her closest teammate.
When handed the ball, Haeger has gone 15-2 with a 2.31 ERA, 111 strikeouts and just 40 walks. Her nasty rise ball is a difficult change of pace from Rogers’ sinkers.
Haeger’s efficiency with the bat and the ball, Walton believes, is no accident. Haeger is a savvy and intuitive player, who uses her knowledge as a pitcher to her advantage as a hitter.
Like the time against Tennessee earlier this season. The series was knotted at a game apiece and the score was tied 3-3 (thanks to a Haeger 3-run homer in the bottom of the sixth). In the UF eighth, Haeger got so fired up in the dugout, she basically announced to her team it was time to end the game.
“This is stupid!” she declared, pulling on her helmet. “I’m ending this game, right now!”
Over the left field fence.
Worth noting: The Gators won the SEC over the runner-up Volunteers by one game.
“It’s one thing to be a good player and to work really hard, but she has the ability to see things from a pitcher that tells location and speeds; to be able to read that stuff when she’s in the batter’s box,” Walton said. “She can tell you things with certain positions of a pitcher’s hand that will tip off the direction of the ball. Usually, catchers pick that up quicker than pitchers. But [Lauren] has it.”
That’s a good way to put it.
Lauren Haeger, most definitely, has it.
Don’t be surprised if that it factor rears itself in the penultimate spotlight this weekend. With a trip to WCWS on the line.
For Haeger, it’s a situation that’s basically sitting on a tee.
“I get the feeling that when I’m up, everybody’s up,” she said.“My competitive side comes out and everybody feeds off it ... and it’s going to be out this weekend. I can’t wait."