Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Lauren Lappin Steps Into Justin's World

When you think of all-time great players associated with Team USA softball, few come to mind before that of Lauren Lappin. Despite only appearing in one Olympic games (2008, though she was an alternate for the 2004 team), Lappin spent eight years as a part of the program and solidified her status as one of the national team's most recognizable and most popular players.

She parlayed that success and popularity into a successful career in the NPF, leaving Team USA as a part of the mass exodus of players who decided to focus their full-time attention on growing the professional league after softball was removed as an Olympic sport. As first a member of the USSSA Pride, then later the Pennsylvania Rebellion, Lappin won the 2010 NPF championship as a member of the Pride. After being traded to the start-up Rebellion in 2014, she relied on her experience and resume to assume a veteran/tutor role for the youngsters on the roster, in addition to playing regularly herself. She retired following that season.

Lappin enjoyed an excellent four-year career at Stanford under coach John Rittman's tutelage, twice being named an all-American including a second-team nod as a sophomore in 2004. She earned all-conference honors four times, and three times was a member of the all-PAC first team. She was named the PAC-10's Defensive Player of the Year both of her final seasons. She ended her collegiate playing career with a .337 batting average in more than 730 at-bats.

Versatility was the name of the game when Lappin was around, as she seemed to have an uncanny ability to play anywhere on the diamond capably and well. Primarily a catcher, second baseman, and shortstop at different points in her career, Lappin showed flashes of Craig Biggio, the Houston Astros great, at times, as he also primarily saw action at those same positions in his illustrious Major League career.

Now a coach at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Lappin has been a part of the school's coaching staff since the program's inception in 2013. The Lakers play at the NAIA level.

Few give as great and knowledgeable of an interview as Lappin, so you'll not only read about her career but also her thoughts on softball in the Olympics and the future of the National Pro Fastpitch league.

Justin’s World: Let's begin with an easy one. How did you get started playing softball?
Lauren Lappin: I played baseball for three years before switching to softball. My older cousins had started playing competitively, so we were able to learn from them on which leagues to play in and where to start out develop some skills and play against good competition.

Justin’s World: Why Stanford?
Lappin: Why NOT Stanford? That was really the question I kept asking myself throughout the process of making my college decision. It was the absolute best option to play softball at the highest level and to get a world-class education. My cousin Kellie is six years older than me and played there too, so I was really familiar with the coaches and program and had my sights set on Stanford for a long time. Not to mention, if you haven’t been to Stanford’s campus, put it on the list… it’s the most beautiful campus, in my biased opinion!

Justin’s World: All-conference; all-region; all-American… needless to say, your mantle is full of trophies and awards just from your Cardinal days. Do you have a particular “favorite”?
Lappin: Our team won the share of a Pac10 Championship, which was the first and I believe only for the program. So that is up there for sure. As far as personal awards, making the 2004 WCWS All-tournament team was really awesome because the only way to get recognized in that way is, obviously, only if your team MAKES it and competes well. Our 2004 team was so special (only the second Stanford team to make it to the Women’s College World Series) and the way we fought throughout that tournament was incredible. The only way I received that type of recognition was because our group bounced back from losing the first game at the World Series to a 3rd place finish by playing really great, scrappy softball. Of any individual award, that is the closest to my heart for what it represented about our 2004 team and that I was able to contribute in that way at the World Series.

Justin’s World: Describe to me the feeling the first time you put on the red, white, and blue for Team USA.
Lappin: Really, really awesome! It is what I had dreamed of since I was in third grade, so it truly was thrilling to put on that uniform for the first time.

Justin’s World: Tell me your favorite Olympic memory – or your favorite story from any of the Team USA/Olympic/international events you were a part of.
Lappin: So many flood to mind…but, one of my favorite moments was when I was an alternate on the 2004 Olympic team. The three alternates traveled with the 15 on the roster to Athens and trained with the team until the final roster was submitted to the IOC a couple days before the opening game. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to be in the Olympic environment, see the athlete village, watch all of the games from the stands. I remember watching that final game, seeing the team on the Gold medal podium and thinking to myself “I want this and I am going to do everything in my power to be on that field next time.” It was truly a definitive moment in my career in which I was inspired and motivated like I had never been before.

Justin’s World: Always known for your defense, you have played quite a few positions around the diamond. Which is your “favorite”, or which do you feel most comfortable in?
Lappin: Well, that answer changes on a daily basis and really has changed over the course of my career. I was a catcher my whole life so that is what came most naturally to me and where I was most comfortable for a long time. My college coaches turned me into a shortstop and I fell in love with it! So for the next five or six years, I would say catcher and shortstop were my favorite. I loved the mental aspects of being behind the plate… calling the game, working with your pitcher to beat the hitters, commanding the defense. And I loved the athleticism shortstop requires… having to move all over the place and make fun diving plays. During my time on the National Team, I was a true utility player and I loved that role. Bouncing around to four or five different positions and being challenged to master all of them. Towards the end of my career, I played a lot of second base, which was the perfect blend of the mental side of being a catcher and the athleticism of playing shortstop. So I had a lot of fun spending most of my last season in that spot.

Justin’s World: You were part of the final (at this point) Olympic team… tell me what it was like in the ’08 Games, knowing that it was the final time, at least for the near future and possibly for good, that softball would be played on the Olympic stage. What was the feeling around the clubhouse? One of sadness, perhaps nostalgia for Games past?
Lappin: There was certainly an extreme sadness when softball was voted out and when that final game of the 2008 Olympics came to an end. We wanted another shot at experiencing the Olympic Games and winning Gold. We were sad that there was no longer that Olympic Dream for young softball players to shoot for. And at the same time, our team took a deep sense of pride and responsibility in preparing and competing to represent our country and our sport for possibly the last time on that stage to the best of our ability. It gave everything a sense of urgency and an awareness to soak it all up and not take any moment for granted.

Justin’s World: In your thoughts, tell me what it would mean for the game and sport as a whole if softball is returned to the Olympics in 2020.
Lappin: It would mean everything. Not only for all the softball players who could dream of playing softball in the Olympics and set goals to try to make that happen, but, more importantly, it would mean getting another WOMEN’S sport back into the Olympic games and onto the international stage. With the presence of women’s sports in the Olympics, more countries put resources into growing the sport at the youth level, therefore giving more girls and women opportunity to grow as human beings through participation in athletics. Getting softball back in the Olympics would be extremely influential in continuing to give females more opportunities, equality, and strength throughout the entire world.

Justin’s World: Moving to talk about the NPF, tell me how you first heard about the league and decided you wanted to play.
Lappin: Well, the league has been around in different forms for multiple decades. I can remember seeing the WPSL All-stars playing the 2000 Olympic team on TV. That was probably the first time I realized that there was professional fastpitch. With softball being voted out of the Olympics, it became even more important to put our time and energy into trying to develop a greater fan base and awareness for the NPF. There are so many amazing young softball players in this country and to not have a place for them to play beyond college would be a shame. And most importantly, the more role models we can give young female athletes the better! For these reasons, AND because of the incredible competitiveness of the league, it was a no-brainer for me to join the NPF for the rest of my career.

Justin’s World: Playing against former teammates has to be interesting, especially for the former USA players who spent years playing together. Tell me what it’s like when you stepped up to the plate against someone like Cat Osterman that you are used to backing up in the field.
Lappin: It was so much fun! After playing with each other for so many years there’s obviously an incredible familiarity with each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The fact that I caught for Cat and Monica for so long definitely gave me confidence stepping in the box against them. But it was a constant battle of adjustments because of that familiarity… myou know that they are going to try to come at you with something different and creative, so you just have to keep adjusting.

Justin’s World: You were traded from the Pride to the Rebellion prior to last season, making you one of few veterans on the team and a mentor for the very young players. Tell me about that transition, moving from perennial championship-winners to a young team that was just beginning in the league.
Lappin: Being traded to the Rebellion was one of the biggest and most rewarding challenges of my career. I have always been a vocal leader, but on a team full of veterans who have so much experience and know what they need to do to prepare and compete, that type of leadership only has so much influence. On the Rebellion, we had mostly rookies or second-year players and they were looking to Bianca [Mejia], Jenn [Salling], [Sarah] Pauly and I to figure it all out. Every move we made mattered and we wanted to set a high standard of what it means to be a professional in how you train, prepare and compete… that is such a responsibility and a privilege. So that was a super fun challenge for me personally. For our team, we didn’t have the record to show for it, but we competed our butts off and were a very scrappy team. It was fun to be the underdogs and always feel like you had a shot!

Justin’s World: With the expansion of the league this offseason, tell me what, in your mind, that means for the future of the NPF.
Lappin: To me, expansion means more roster spots. And more roster spots means more opportunities for really talented players to get a chance to compete beyond college. It is an amazing and (unfortunately) very unique thing to be able to play into your prime in our sport, to benefit from an emotional maturity that really takes your game to the next level. I would love to see more women get the opportunity to experience that type of development of their game. Furthermore, expansion can only mean that more people and companies are excited about the NPF and the future of pro softball… so that is exciting!

Justin’s World: Tell me about your decision to retire from playing and what factors went into making it.
Lappin: Well, to be perfectly honest, money came into play in making my decision to retire. And I don’t mean that in the predictable sense where I played for so long because I was making a pretty good living. The Pride is able to pay their players much more than other teams, which meant that when I was traded, my income from being a softball player drastically changed. So when I say money came into play I mean this: because of the trade, I feel like I was able to see the game from a less clouded perspective and really reconnect with why I love it. I have always loved training… I could take ground balls all day long. I am a competitor who loves to win… each game and the little battles within each game. But also, I have been coaching and instructing since right after the 2008 Olympics and I have become very passionate about the teaching and mentoring side of the sport. Throughout last season, it became very clear in my head and in my heart that I would always be fired up about competition but that my passion within softball was shifting from my own competitive success to that of my players. It was actually pretty perfect that last year I was able to play with a team full of women who are more similar to my players’ age but who were actually MY peers in that setting. I was able to compete alongside athletes whose excitement and appreciation about the opportunity of being a pro was ever-present and who at the same time were learning so many new physical, mental and emotional skills to take their game to the next level. And THAT is where I am eager to focus my energy and attention: teaching athletes how to become better hitters, fielders, competitors, students and people through the challenges of this beautiful sport. 

Justin’s World: What’s been the biggest adaption you’ve had to make as you’ve begun your coaching career the last few years, moving from being uniform to guiding from the dugout?
Lappin: Bringing more layers of clothing to wear during a doubleheader in Chicago!

Justin’s World: Finish this sentence: If not for softball, I ___________________
Lappin: … would be retiring from a career on the Women’s National soccer team! ;)

Justin’s World: And finally, for my signature question: If you were stranded on a deserted island for an undetermined period of time, but could take three things with you, what would you take? Boats and phones are off-limits.

Lappin: 1) my ISUP (inflatable stand up paddle board); 2) spf 50 suncreen; 3) matches

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