With heavy heart, Lake hits one out of the park
Chelsi Lake led Baylor in each of the triple crown categories last season. But the strength she's shown this season, while her mother battles cancer, is much more impressive.
Sometimes nothing matters quite so much as living in the moment.
For Baylor, a program that has never finished better than third in the conference regular season, Saturday's win, as well as the subsequent 11-3 rout of the Cowgirls on Sunday, capped a successful weekend rife with long-term implications. Having improved to 9-0 in league play, the Bears also moved three games clear of No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 5 Texas A&M in the loss column after both of those teams lost conference games.
Lake, one of two seniors on this year's team to spend four years in Waco, said she was thrilled to do her part to help complete a three-run rally in the bottom of the seventh, hitting her home run on the heels of Brette Reagan's solo shot and Ashley Monceaux's single.
But conference success and championship aspirations weren't the true inspiration for this reaction.
"When I hit that ball, I'm not going to lie -- I was telling my dad this and my boyfriend last night -- I don't remember touching the ground running around the bases," Lake said on Sunday. "It was such an incredible feeling, Obviously, it's always special to win a game like that, but just what's been going in my personal life and everything has made it that much more special."
On the day before her softball heroics, Lake awoke at her family home outside Dallas at four in the morning and spent the better part of the next 14 hours waiting with legions of family members and friends at an area hospital as her mother underwent surgery as part of treatment for cancer.
Shortly after New Year's, as Chelsi and her teammates prepared for preseason practices, Kathy Lake was diagnosed with cancer for the second time in less than three years. It's thought that the surgery in Dallas on Friday, which included removing four centimeters of the right side of her jaw, could eradicate the cancer that the family hoped had been beaten by multiple rounds of radiation treatment which Kathy underwent during the summer between Chelsi's freshman and sophomore years at Baylor.
"She's just very loving and caring," Lake said of her mother. "Very few people forget her when they meet her. I don't know if I'm biased, but to me, my mother just has a special glow all the time when you see her."
Lake has been a key component of Baylor's rise to prominence under coach Glenn Moore. With at least another month to play, she already holds the school record for career home runs and was the top catcher on the ESPN.com preseason All-American team this season. But after leading the team in all three triple-crown categories last season with a .362 batting average, 18 home runs and 52 RBIs in 60 games, she has struggled to live up to her own lofty standards (although she still ranks second on the team in home runs and third in RBIs this season) while simultaneously coping with her mother's illness.
"Honestly, the success that the team has had has helped me get through the hard times," Lake said. "I haven't performed as well this year as a lot of people were hoping that I would. But that's kind of something that has really been a burden on my heart, because my mother is my everything, and I absolutely adore her. She's been my rock for 22 years."
Aside from missing a few games as a result of her first battle with cancer, as well as a trip earlier this season to Hawaii (she's not all that fond of flying), Kathy had joined husband Larry at just about every softball game their daughter ever played. But after seeing her mom mouth the words "I love you," to her in the intensive care unit following the surgery (a tracheotomy left Kathy temporarily unable to speak), Chelsi accepted that she might need to be on her own.
"I know that no matter what, she's thinking of me and she wants the thing that is the best for me," Lake said. "I was talking to my dad Friday night, and I told him, 'Daddy you really don't have to come to my game Saturday. If you want to stay here in Dallas with momma, you can.'"
Of course, as Chelsi recalled with a laugh, she could do little but concede the essential truth of her dad's lighthearted response: "Chelsi, do you know what your mother would do if she found out that I didn't go to your game?"
So while family members kept Kathy apprised of the game -- Chelsi was only surprised her mom didn't commandeer a computer of her own from the nurses to track the game online -- Larry made the drive to Waco on Saturday. And when he returned that night, he brought a special gift, after the spouse of a Baylor assistant coach recovered the home run ball and returned it to Chelsi.
"My dad took it to my mom in the hospital last night," Lake recounted. "He said that she just absolutely lit up and everything. She was just really excited."
Kathy won't be able to attend Baylor's showdown with second-ranked Oklahoma in Norman, Okla. on Wednesday, but there is hope she'll be back in the stands later in the season. And with a 39-9 overall record and that spotless mark in conference play, Baylor has the potential to provide her with the opportunity to attend games well into May and even June at the Women's College World Series, a destination the Bears have yet to visit in the program's history.
With power, speed, defense and pitching, the Bears are one of the most complete teams in the country. And with the prognosis looking good for Kathy, the team may get a few more clutch hits like the one on Saturday from one of its top sluggers, now free to concentrate completely on opposing pitchers.
"This group of underclassmen that have come in, they have really made such a huge impact on our program," Lake said. "Lisa [Ferguson] and I have been the two seniors that have been here all four years, and I feel really lucky to have been part of the program to watch it grow and see where it's at right now. Just being 9-0 in the Big 12 right now, that's so incredible. I just get so excited, and I get goose bumps when I think about, 'Wow, we're doing this right here, right now.'"
On Saturday, a ball tracing an arc through the Texas sky had less to do with setting the stage for what's to come than reflecting the joys of the present.
Sometimes cherishing the magic of the moment shouldn't be taken for granted.
Big 12 Notes
Taking a spin around the weekend in the Big 12, there are certain lessons that just make life easier once learned. Don't touch a hot stove. Don't make the first out of an inning at third base. Don't go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line. And don't try and win a pitcher's duel against Nebraska.
Unranked Nebraska made one of the biggest statements of the weekend, sweeping a pair of games from No. 13 Texas, including a 2-0 shutout on Sunday that saw Molly Hill and Ashley DeBuhr combine on a five-hitter. The day before, DeBuhr went all 11 innings against Megan Denny and the Longhorns in a marathon that ended only when the Cornhuskers rallied for two runs in the bottom of the 11th to win 5-4.
Watch Nebraska-Texas highlights
With the wins, Nebraska improved to 5-4 in conference play and joined Baylor, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas A&M in the top half of the standings.
Since opening Big 12 play against Baylor on March 24, Nebraska has gone 12-4 (including seven nonconference games during the stretch). All four losses were at the hands of either Baylor or Texas A&M, but they came by a combined score of 7-0. Putting aside for a moment the fact that a losing streak is going to carry on toward infinity if a team never scores, the Cornhuskers played 28 innings against two of the better lineups in the country and allowed just seven runs.
During the recent run, 10 of the 16 games ended in shutouts -- four against the Cornhuskers and six by Rhonda Revelle's team.
Hill and DeBuhr, two of only four Nebraska natives on the roster, may well be the most underrated tandem in the country. Handling all but 17.2 of the team's total innings this season, they've combined to strike out 369 batters in 301 innings while posting a 1.16 combined ERA.
Now the question is can the Cornhuskers get enough offense for all that pitching brilliance to matter? They're hitting an anemic .241 this season with nine home runs -- or four fewer than Baylor slugger Ashley Monceaux has all by herself this season. The return to health of senior Jamie Waldecker (two home runs in 25 games) and emergence of sophomore Haley Long (.275 in 38 games) helps, but a late-season surge from talented freshman Alex Hupp (33 strikeouts and nine hits) would be helpful in transforming the team's profile from spoiler to sleeper. After striking out four times in Saturday's game, Hupp didn't bat in Sunday's finale.
• Missouri finally saw its unbeaten run in conference play end at six games in an 8-3 loss against Oklahoma on Sunday, but the Tigers got plenty out of the weekend by beating the Sooners 5-1 in the first game of the series.
Just 24-17 entering conference play, Missouri jumped out to its surprising league start by taking care of business in sweeping three games from league lightweights Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, sweeping two from Texas and splitting with the Sooners.
In Missouri's defense, it did play a brutal nonconference schedule that included a total of 13 games against LSU, Arizona, Arizona State, Northwestern, Washington and Stanford, as well as a road date at No. 20 Southern Illinois. The Tigers went 1-13 in those games, managing just an extra-inning win against Washington (which then proceeded to beat the Tigers twice in subsequent games).
But all those beatings seem to have paid off in the long run, especially for ace Jen Bruck, Just 8-4 with a 4.13 ERA outside of league play, Bruck is 6-1 with a 1.45 ERA against conference foes. She was at her best in the opening win against the Sooners, allowing just five hits and no earned runs in seven innings but couldn't come back with a repeat performance in the back end of the doubleheader, allowing six hits and four earned runs in 3.2 innings.
• Despite its lofty national ranking, No. 2 Oklahoma now has no margin for error in the conference race after splitting with Missouri. Realistically, the Sooners need to sweep both home games against Baylor on Wednesday and likely win out against Kansas, Oklahoma State and Nebraska in order to have a shot at catching the Bears for the top seed in the conference tournament.
Perhaps more importantly, the Sooners are locked in a race with Texas A&M for the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. Whichever team finishes second in the regular season will open the conference tourney against a lesser opponent that had to play the previous day, while the team that finished third gets a rested sixth seed (conceivably Texas) for its first game.
As much as Wednesday's doubleheader against No. 9 Baylor is a battle between two top offenses, it's also another opportunity for both Oklahoma's Lauren Eckermann and Baylor's Lisa Ferguson to take charge in the circle.
All three of the conference's team ranked nationally in the top 10 can hit, but bids to the Women's College World Series may ultimately hinge on how well Eckermann, Ferguson and Texas A&M's tandem of Amanda Scarborough and Megan Gibson throw. Scarborough has to be considered the clubhouse leader in that race at the moment, but Wednesday's games will be a prime showcase for the competition.
• Speaking of Scarborough, Gibson and the fifth-ranked Aggies, they're on a pretty good roll at the moment. Fresh off sweeping two games at Kansas by a combined 20-0 margin, Jo Evans' team has gone five games without giving up a run since losing 3-1 against Baylor on April 4.
Gibson set the tone for the weekend by holding the Jayhawks to three hits on Saturday, and Scarborough rose to the challenge, one-hitting Kansas on Sunday while striking out 10 (Gibson and Scarborough also combined to score four runs in the first game and drive in five runs in the second game).
With the bats working again, the Aggies have a chance to make a move this week if they can take care of business at home against Oklahoma State on Wednesday and at Missouri over the weekend.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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