Once unheralded recruit, Lobpries comes up big for Texas A&M
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Two softballs hang in the air; one season hangs in the balance.
One ball is inches from completing the arc that carried it from Kristine Priebe's bat toward a particular spot of grass in a sea of green in front of Jami Lobpries. The other is also hovering above the grass in center field, but it's only beginning its journey toward home plate after being released from Lobpries' hand following a single up the middle.
The two moments are separated by a matter of minutes in the bottom of the sixth inning of an elimination game between Florida and Texas A&M. The score is still tied 0-0 and each minute makes it ever more likely that the first team to score will win.
In each case, Lobpries has just seconds to react. But the end result has been in the works for months.
When practice began in January, Lobpries figured she would spend her final season patrolling left field, as she had during her junior season. A part-time player as a freshman, she made 82 of her 88 appearances as a sophomore and junior as a starter. Replacing departed center fielder Sharonda McDonald was to fall to freshman Kelsey Spittler.
"Our plan was to have Kelsey in center, because Jami is so great in left," coach Jo Evans said. "And then Kelsey just wasn't getting the reads on the ball. So it came probably a few weeks before the season, I would say in January, we put Jami out there. We knew she could adapt to any of those outfield positions -- she just gets a great read. But we were trying to build for the future, you know, to have a center fielder for the next four years. But in January, when we came back and started practicing and scrimmaging, we as a coaching staff just said we need to make this switch."
Suddenly Lobpries found herself both the voice of experience in an outfield that included a freshman in Spittler and a converted infielder in Holly Ridley.
"It was a different transition for me at first, too, because I've never played center before," Lobpries said. "But I love it in the outfield, and so I took it upon myself -- Holly Ridley, I don't think had ever played a game in the outfield and Kelsey was a center fielder who moved over to left -- so I just tried to use any experience, any knowledge I had. I would get them both to stay after practice and work extra with them and just tell them everything I know from experience out there -- a read on the ball, when to catch a foul ball, when not to catch a foul ball."
Although somewhat overshadowed by three classmates in Megan Gibson, Jamie Hinshaw and Amanda Scarborough who earned All-America honors at some point in their careers, Lobpries has had a significant impact of her own on the team's fortunes. This season alone, she hit .347 in conference play this season and currently ranks fourth among the team's regulars with a .388 on-base percentage. Her alert play on the bases helped turn the tide on Friday in a win against Louisiana-Lafayette.
"It's interesting, because what she has done in the Big 12 conference season and postseason, she's every bit as good as the other seniors," Evans said. "She's contributing every bit as much as what those kids have. She had some catching up to do, because the other kids played really competitive ball, the whole travel deal, forever. And she caught on right at the tail end, and played baseball for a long time, too. So she's sort of catching up to the game, and you can see now -- I mean, if she was here another year, you'd see this continue."
Which brings us back to the bottom of the sixth inning Sunday night.
Lobpries broke in without hesitation when Priebe lifted her looper into center on Gibson's fourth pitch. She dove just in time to slide her glove under the ball and turn a leadoff single into a harmless fly out with one of the tournament's best catches.
"I just saw the ball dying and basically the way Megan was throwing out there, we're going to give everything we can be cause we have her up there," Lobpries said. "Basically, I just saw the ball falling and I threw my body out there, just hoping. I think I just barely got my glove under it. I will break my neck going for a ball, because that is what she will do for us on the mound."
That proved ever more crucial when the next two Gators picked up singles. But the catch might have gone for naught if it hadn't been for the throw that Lobpries unleashed after Aja Paculba sent Florida's third consecutive single through the middle of the infield. With Florida coach Tim Walton initially waving Kristina Hilberth home as she rounded third base, Lobpries scooped the ball and came up firing quickly enough to convince Walton to throw up the stop sign and hold Hilbreth at third. It turned out to be the right move when Lobpries' throw traced a perfect line into the catcher's waiting mitt.
With the bases loaded but the game still scoreless, Gibson then coaxed a fielder's choice at home out of Francesca Enea and a fly out to Spittler in left from Ali Gardiner
"I was excited about the throw home," Evans said. "That was huge. The catch doesn't surprise me, because she does that all the time. But to get rid of the ball like that [on the throw] and give us a chance to extend that inning was huge."
A split second separated success from failure on both plays, but the inches that carried Texas A&M to the championship series were also the result of a coaching decision made in January and a recruiting decision made four years ago to give a local kid without glittering credentials an opportunity to be a part of a class that changed a program.
As she showed during the sixth inning, an equal part.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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