NORMAN — Lauren Chamberlain knew she needed a change following her performance in the Cathedral City Classic in Palm Springs in late February.
The Oklahoma freshman infielder realized this wasn't high school anymore. Pitches were blowing by her. She had struck out five times in five games.
“It was definitely frustrating,” she said. “I started to see my strikeout numbers starting to go up. We talk on this team about giving team at-bats, and striking out is not what you want to do for your team.”
Chamberlain needed to ditch her “big, slugger swing” for a shorter stroke, an adjustment that has paid off in a huge way. She was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Year earlier this week after clubbing a conference-record 25 home runs in the regular season and is one of 10 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year.
Next, she'll be one of the No. 4 Sooners' biggest offensive forces when they open postseason play in the Norman Regional against Lehigh at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the OU Softball Complex.
“She never gets cheated, with her swing,” OU coach Patty Gasso said. “(The ball is) going to go a mile high or a mile long or take somebody's head off. She really swings it with passion and strength.”
Gasso has been impressed with Chamberlain's strength, along with her fast hands, for years. But assistant coach Tripp MacKay noticed right away that Chamberlain would not be able to consistently keep up with college softball's hardest throwers with the long swing.
Following that Palm Springs road trip, Chamberlain agreed. So the pair spent extra hours in the batting cage in the ensuing weeks working on a more compact swing, where the bat has a shorter and more direct path to contact with the ball.
By the time Big 12 play began, the new swing felt natural. And from there, Chamberlain has developed into one of the country's most dangerous power hitters and run-producers.
Her 25 home runs is the second-highest total in the nation. She led the Big 12 during conference play in hits (30), total bases (74) and slugging percentage (.949) and ranked second in RBIs (25) and runs scored (23).
Gasso said that success all stems from Chamberlain's blend of intense competitiveness and willingness to change — a quality many young players do not possess when it comes to something as unique and personal as a swing.
“A lot of kids would say, ‘Don't touch my swing. Leave me alone,'” Gasso said. “But she let her guard down and said, ‘Help me. I trust you.'
“I think that was very important — that she gave us that trust. She worked hard for the fix, and now she's reaping the benefits.”
Other than needing to make the mechanical tweak, however, Chamberlain's has shown little signs of being a freshman.
She's displayed an ability to quickly adjust on the field — perhaps most evidenced when, after going 0-for-5 with four strikeouts against Missouri's Chelsea Thomas in their first meeting, she took the Tiger ace deep the following day. She linked up with Jessica Shults, her longtime friend and travel ball teammate, and Sooner superstar Keilani Ricketts — to the point that Gasso now considers Chamberlain an upperclassman. Other than missing In-N-Out Burger, a staple in her hometown of Trabuco Canyon in Orange County, Calif., Chamberlain has adapted well to Norman.
And that immediate comfort level with her teammates, surroundings and college game has helped Chamberlain bring an “infectious” personality to this Sooner squad, Gasso said. She's been known to enthusiastically tell detailed stories about a pet fish named Baby that has managed to survive, despite the fact she doesn't feed it. She might even break into a Luke Bryan song in the OU locker room.
“She works as hard as anybody else,” Gasso said. “But she's probably one of the most vocal, animated, fun-loving athletes that I've had in a long time. She really enjoys life.”
This weekend, Chamberlain will experience the NCAA postseason for the first time. She'll be expected to produce at a high level for a team with its goals set on winning a national championship. That could be a daunting task for a lot of freshmen.
But with her new and improved swing and naturally mature demeanor, Chamberlain does not show any nerves. Only excitement.
“It's been a really easy transition, and I owe a lot of it to my teammates,” she said. “I came in here, and they don't really let you hover and they don't let you stay in the same spot. Everyone keeps moving up.
“Your teammates are kind of grabbing onto you, each one of them, and saying, ‘Let's go. Let's get to this new level.' I had a great time getting to that level, and we're not stopping.”
Game 1: Oregon State vs. Tulsa, 5 p.m.
Game 2: Oklahoma vs. Lehigh, 7:30 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 3:30 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 6 p.m.
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 7 (if necessary), 3:30 p.m.
Conference finish: Won Big 12 regular-season title (no conference tournament).
Best players: Keilani Ricketts (28-4 record, 1.10 ERA, 344 strikeouts, .406 batting average) and Lauren Chamberlain (25 home runs, 63 RBIs) are both finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Award.
Stat to know: OU leads the nation in ERA (1.17).
Last NCAA Tournament appearance: 2011; eliminated in Women's College World Series.
Factoid: OU last won the national title in 2000.
LEHIGH MOUNTAIN HAWKS
Regular season: Won Patriot League regular-season and tournament title.
Best players: Jennifer Colquhoun (.438 average, six triples, 13 home runs, 48 RBIs) is the Patriot League Player of the Year, while Julie Fernandez (.448 average, 22 doubles, four home runs, 48 RBIs) is a four-time all-league selection. Both rank in the top 12 in the nation in batting average.
Stat to know: Lehigh ranks 20th in the nation in ERA (1.80).
Last NCAA Tournament appearance: 2011; eliminated in Regionals.
Factoid: Lehigh faced Oklahoma in the Norman Regional in 2001, when the Sooners were the defending national champions.
TULSA GOLDEN HURRICANE
Conference finish: Won Conference USA regular-season and tournament title.
Best Players: Junior infielder Samantha Cobb is the power threat, with 12 doubles, 11 home runs and 46 RBIs. Leadoff hitter Caitlin Everett has a .423 on-base percentage and 34 stolen bases.
Stat to know: TU scores more than five runs per game.
Last tournament appearance: 2011; eliminated in Regionals.
Factoid: This is the fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in TU history.
OREGON STATE BEAVERS
Conference finish: Seventh in Pac-12 regular-season standings (no conference tournament).
Best players: Junior shortstop Elizabeth Santana leads the Beavers in batting average (.349), hits (61), triples (three) and RBIs (36).
Stat to know: The Beavers rank 106th in the nation in batting average (.275).
Last tournament appearance: 2007; eliminated in Regionals
Factoid: The Beavers are 4-0 all-time against Tulsa and 2-10 all-time against OU.