By SCOTT COTTOS
FINDLAY — Before there was the Miami Heat, there was USA Softball.
Two straight championships. Right there in contention for a third. Then the title is gone.
Just as the San Antonio Spurs bounced the two-champion Miami Heat Sunday night in the NBA Finals, Team USA was ousted from its World Cup of Softball throne last summer by Japan after claiming the crown in each of the past two years.
“Exactly,” veteran Team USA second baseman Lauren Gibson said Monday morning of the parallel to the Heat. “That’s exactly what it was like.”
Gibson and the rest of those in the U.S. National Team Selection Camp are spending two days in town as part of a tour in which it is playing exhibition games and conducting youth clinics. A clinic took place Monday at the Marathon Diamonds at The Cube; Team USA will return to the facility to face a college all-star team in a doubleheader scheduled for 6 p.m. today.
For the national team, it’s all in preparation for this year’s World Cup, scheduled for July 7-13 in Irvine, California. After the three-city tour, the current crop of 24 players will be trimmed to 17 for the World Cup and following events.
“We definitely want to win it this year,” Gibson said. “Hopefully we can.”
This year would make four times on Team USA for Gibson, who graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2013 after winning the Southeastern Conference batting title with a .420 average, being named the SEC player of the year and helping the Lady Vols gain a spot in the Women’s College World Series.
And while her credentials also include being named first-team All-America in each of her last two college seasons and leading Team USA in batting with a .500 average in last year’s World Cup, she doesn’t feel she’s guaranteed a spot on this year’s club.
“Every year, there’s a great group of girls that comes out that has really good skills and everything,” she said. “I’m nervous, too, to hopefully make the team and just get out there and play.”
The 22-year-old places high value on being a member of Team USA.
“This is one of those experiences I always wanted to have,” she said. “Ever since I was little, I dreamt about playing on the USA team. So, just to be able to say for the past three years I’ve played with the national team, it’s just a very unreal experience.”
Gibson played softball, basketball and soccer while growing up in Pasadena, Maryland. But with not only an outdoor batting cage outside the family home but one in the basement, she developed a special passion and aptitude for softball.
“I truly just loved the sport,” she said. “I enjoyed soccer and basketball, but I could tell there was a difference in my athletic ability between softball, soccer and basketball. I was just way better at softball.”
Colleges started recruiting Gibson very early in her career, and she gave a verbal commitment to Tennessee after her freshman year of high school.
“I played for a (travel) team out of New Jersey,” she said. “We went to a bunch of different showcases. Tennessee came across me at one of the tournaments and I happened to have a really good game and they started recruiting me.”
She gained her first spot on the national team after her sophomore year at Tennessee, and she’s noticed big differences in college and international play.
“International ball is much more competitive because everyone is playing for their countries,” she said. “I feel it’s different in the fact that there are certain things that Japan and Puerto Rico and others do that college teams don’t really do. That’s just based on being from different countries and learning different ways of playing.”
For instance, she said Japan typically fields a fast team that emphasizes bunting and contact hitting.
“They’re very short game,” Gibson said. “They put the ball in play, whereas with a lot of college teams it’s just the long ball and overpowering teams.”
As she works at clinics, Gibson could be looking at youngsters who are future members of Team USA.
“My main message to them is I used to be there and now I’m living my dream, and as long as you guys continue to work hard, you can be in my spot later on in life,” she said.
NOTES: Former Elmwood and University of Findlay standout Emily Reynolds is one of three recently graduated UF seniors who will play on the squad facing the national team today. … Tickets for the doubleheader will be available at the gate at $10 each.
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