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    SEC 40/40: Even Without Olympics, Gibson Still Golden

    By: Brian Rice
    Twitter: @briancrice
    SEC Digital Network

    KNOXVILLE, Tenn -- Lauren Gibson does not remember a time when softball was not a part of her life.

    The Tennessee Lady Volunteer second baseman and member of the USA National Team is a part of today’s modern generation, born to a period where women in sports are the rule, rather than the exception. But as a softball player, Gibson found her first roadblock in athletics once she reached the game’s highest level.

    Opportunity From the Start

    Gibson began playing the game at the age of four, after being a batgirl for older sister Danielle’s team a year earlier. She had been bitten by the softball bug, and thanks to the advances in support for women’s sports she had a goal to focus on from that young age. The 20-year-old Gibson is just five years older than the Tennessee program she would eventually suit up for.

    “When I was little, I always hoped I would go to Division One,” Gibson said of the opportunities ahead of her at a young age. “You always have the people that hear that and say, ‘Oh, yeah,’ but I did.”

    Gibson was coached at many levels of competition by her father, Steve, in various roles, starting with her 10-and-under team.  Steve and Gibson’s mother Lorrie are frequent visitors to Knoxville for home weekends, and make plenty of road trips as well. But back at home in Maryland, dad once again becomes coach.

    “My parents have always been my main supporters,” Gibson said. “When I go home, some people may take off, but my dad keeps on me, asking me if I want to be the best. Then we go to work.”

    The goal of being a Division One player came closer to reality in her teenage years.

    “I started playing for a travel team, Team New Jersey,” she said. “That’s when it really hit me. I got to the tournaments and college coaches started showing up to see me, and it was unreal, it was such an awesome feeling.”

    One of those coaches was Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly, who said as an East Coast player, Gibson hadn’t gotten the credit she deserved in the recruiting process. But Weekly and fellow co-head coach and wife Karen knew that they wanted the Maryland native.

    “We recruited her and she really liked it here,” Weekly said. “We were really fortunate to get her.” “I had gone to UCLA when I was there for a tournament,” Gibson said of the process. “It was nice, but when I came here, it just felt so much like a second home. The people that surround you here are amazing and make you feel like you’re meant to be here.”

    As a freshman at Tennessee in 2010, Gibson started 51 games, appearing in 58 total and was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team after hitting .297 overall with 23 runs scored, eight doubles, two triples, six HR's and 39 RBIs, while helping to lead the Lady Vols to their fourth Women’s College World Series. In the WCWS, she led UT with a .444 batting average. A season later, Gibson started all 61 games in an All-American season that saw her hit .420 with a team-high 13 doubles, three triples, eight HR's and 63 RBI.

    In 2012, she again was a First-team All-American while leading Tennessee with 13 home runs, helping to power UT to its second Women’s College World Series appearance in three years.

    “Lauren is one of the greatest players and people we’ve ever had here,” Weekly said. “From the first day she came in, she was all business. She came in with a great work ethic, great attitude, a real servant-warrior. She put her nose to the grindstone and got it done.”

    American Dreams

    Following the 2011 season, Gibson headed home to Maryland after Tennessee’s exit from the NCAA Tournament in the Knoxville Regional.

    She was anticipating a long, restful summer on the shore, but a call from her co-head coach changed those plans. Injuries had created open spots in USA National Team camp, and Weekly had invitations in hand for Gibson and teammate Kelly Grieve.

    “Ralph had called me a couple of days before the camp was supposed to start,” Gibson said of the invitation. “There had been an injury, and he asked me if I wanted to go. It sounds wrong, but in my mind, I was thinking ‘I’m just a last-second phone call.’”

    “When the opportunity for the National Team came up at the last minute, I was really glad she took it,” Weekly said. “She is so unassuming and so humble. I’d like to think that Karen, Marty (UT assistant coach McDaniel) and I had something to do with that drive, but some kids are just born with it and she’s one. She wants to be the best, but she has a quiet way of going about it.”

    The quiet, unassuming player did what Weekly expected she would once she arrived at National Team Camp, and the success she had caught Gibson herself a little off-guard.

    “Every day my mom would call me and I told her that I thought I had a good day,” Gibson said. But I still wasn’t sure if I was just another body here.”

    While standing in the airport, on her way home, she found out that she wasn’t just another body at camp.

    “When I got that phone call that I had made the team, I started crying in the airport,” she said. “The National Team, the Olympics is every little girl’s dream, for that to come true is unreal. I still get chills just talking about it.”

    Olympic Dreams Beyond Reach

    The SEC will send 176 current and former student-athletes and coaches to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but Gibson and her six teammates from schools currently in the SEC aren’t among them.

    A vote of the International Olympic Committee in 2005 determined that softball and baseball would be removed from the Games in 2012 and will also be absent in 2016. In 2011, the International Softball Federation and International Baseball Federation announced they would combine efforts to seek inclusion of both sports for the 2020 Games.

    With softball out of the Olympics, Gibson and Team USA have dominated competition the last two summers, winning gold medals in the World Cup of Softball in 2011 and 2012 to go with a Pan American Games gold in 2011. The team also took home silver medals in the 2012 Candaian Open and ISF World Championships.

    The “Eagles” as Team USA began identifying themselves, lost just two games during competitions this summer.

    In those events, Gibson has been the stalwart at second base for Team USA, and has primarily hit third in the batting order. She hit .500 in the Canadian Open, including 3-for-4 with a homer and 3 RBI in the championship game. Gibson improved on that mark in the ISF World Championships, hitting .522 (12-for-23) with four home runs, 12 runs scored and 12 RBI. She reached base in 16 of 27 plate appearances.

    She was 2-for-3 with a pair of singles and an RBI in the ASA Title IX Game against Canada on June 23 in Oklahoma City, an event put on by ESPN to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX.

    Despite the eye-popping numbers, Gibson is the same humble player that Weekly has always described.

    “There are so many great athletes on the USA team,” Gibson said. “The competition level is awesome. To be in the starting lineup, to even see the field is amazing.”