- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Sometimes making a difference beyond the playing field begins with finding your voice. Or in the case of Western Carolina softball standout Lauren Ross, finding another voice that makes your own that much more powerful.
When Christine Hornak took over the Western Carolina program two years ago, just a year after the program had played its first game, the new coach knew that in Ross, she was inheriting a player who started all 61 of the team's games as a freshman in 2006 and ranked sixth in the conference with 11 home runs. And she knew that based on Ross' standout prep pitching career, she also had a player capable of contributing in a number of ways.
But the full extent of that versatility wasn't clear until the first time she heard Ross sing.
"I think my mouth dropped," Hornak recalled. "I was pretty shocked. I just couldn't believe -- I really enjoy listening to singers who have good voices live, and when I heard her voice I was just shocked at how well she sang."
That wasn't entirely unlike the reaction Heather Pritchard had registered a year earlier when she first heard her new teammate quietly singing along to a song on the radio while riding in that most familiar of amateur recording studios known as a car. But unlike Hornak, Pritchard at least had some idea of what might be coming. In fact, without the shortstop's sleuthing while reading the biographical data for all the players who would make up Western Carolina's inaugural softball team -- Ross was an all-state choir singer in high school -- Hornak and others might never have had the opportunity to hear anything at all.
"We were in the car one day, and I was in the backseat right behind her and I was kind of leaned up because she was singing a song that was on the radio," Pritchard recalled of a trip during her freshman year. "And I actually could hear her, because that's the first time I'd actually heard her sing, and I was like, 'Wow, she really can sing.'"
That realization got Pritchard thinking about Casey Melvin, a friend from her hometown of Hudson, N.C., who was also a student at Western Carolina and an aspiring musician (beyond even the typical strumming native to college dorms). As Ross put it, "Casey always carries her guitar with her everywhere; it's kind of like a cell phone to her."
Remembering how well Melvin harmonized when she sang with her mother back home, Pritchard arranged for the two to meet and jam a little. No matter what happens on the softball field, where last season Pritchard helped out Ross' efforts in the circle by posting the team's fourth-best batting average and playing solid defense, bringing Ross' voice and Melvin's guitar together three years ago will remain her biggest assist.
"I call Casey like my musical soul mate," Ross said. "I really feel like we were supposed to meet to sing together. She harmonizes with me really well, and I'm not sure if two other people just randomly could do that."
Not that Pritchard's work was done if she wanted anyone else to hear what she heard. Showing a talent for management on par with what Ross and Melvin demonstrated musically, she cajoled the initially reticent duo to take its act public.
Though Ross is used to playing softball in front of crowds and her coach describes her as a nonstop talker and jokester who keeps her teammates loose and united, she readily admits that getting up on stage is an entirely different experience than standing in the pitching circle.
"It was actually pretty much equally hard for both of them [to perform]," Pritchard recalled. "Casey would never sing in front of anybody and Lauren didn't like to sing in front of anybody, so all the time I'm like, 'Y'all should really sing in front of some people.' I finally talked them into it, I think, after about three months of trying. And they finally started singing and people really liked their sound, so after that it got a little easier."
From the humble beginnings of open mike nights on campus to an impressive viral presence (videos posted online have drawn more than 40,000 views), Ross and Melvin gradually began to carve out their own musical niche playing covers and a few original tunes Pritchard wrote. Moving more recently toward playing and composing music more reflective of their spiritual beliefs, they're spending part of the summer playing shows at local churches as part of the Tees Overseas program, where the shirts asked for as admission are collected and sent to needy recipients in South Africa.
And earlier this month, the duo's original song "Sometimes Love" was picked up by FarPoint Media as the intro music for a nationally syndicated podcast for the show "One Tree Hill."
As they prepare for their senior year at Western Carolina, what began as a fortuitous encounter and a hobby could grow into a professional music career for the duo.
"I honestly wouldn't want to sing by myself," Ross said. "I would love to sing with Casey. I feel like we could sing together and we could go as far as people want us to go. I mean, hey, if they want to listen to us and people like us, I'm all for concerts and stuff.
"I feel like we're something that is different, and it makes me kind of very nervous, because I know how good we can sing, how good we can be."
Whether it's transferred directly, through programs like the benefit shows at local churches, or indirectly, as a listener's inspiration or relaxation, music has power. From the beginning of Ross and Melvin's collaboration, when a nascent softball program composed of complete strangers came together around one of their own, to whatever comes next, that's playing out at Western Carolina.
And no matter what happens, Ross already has one gig lined up for the future.
"I always tell her," Hornak laughed, "I don't know if I'm ever going to get married, or when I get married, but she's already booked for that date, whenever that date is going to be, because I want her to sing at my wedding."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.