The curious career of Lauren Gevaart

GVL / Hannah Mico
Heather Gevaart

GVL / Hannah Mico Heather Gevaart

Pete Barrows

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A comb through the 2014 Grand Valley State University softball team roster reveals one name that is difficult to place — Lauren Gevaart. A junior pitcher new to the team, there’s no record of a transfer or of any varsity collegiate softball experience associated with her name.

It’s as though she appeared from the fields of Allendale, where the cornstalks grow tall.

A deeper glance into Gevaart’s player bio produces proof that she just so happens to be one of the most accomplished prep pitchers to rise up through the Michigan softball ranks in the last decade and has studied athletic training at GVSU since 2011.

So when Gevaart stepped into GVSU softball coach Doug Woods’ classroom last semester, it isn’t hard to imagine a mystical voice echoing in through the concrete slab walls whispering, “If you ask her, she will play,” urging him to take a chance.

“Lauren basically said she was done with softball in high school,” Woods said. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, she’s coming to Grand Valley; you have to get a hold of her!’ But as far as I was concerned, she had already made her decision. I wasn’t going to bother her.”

That was until at a softball tournament last summer when Woods was alerted that Gevaart had returned to the mound for casual play with a compilation of NCAA Division I talents from across the state on a team sponsored by Hooters. Maybe Gevaart had been reminded of all that once was good with softball — or that it could be again.

Maybe it was just time. Either way, it was a big chance for Woods, and an unexpected one at that.

“It just so happens that she was in my athletic training class that I was teaching, and so we had a conversation,” Woods said. “I asked her if she played last summer, she said yes. I asked her if she liked it, she said yeah, it was sort of fun.

“A couple weeks went by, and I brought up softball again. I asked her if we got in a bind, if she could throw a few innings for us.

“She said that it’d take her a while to get ready. I said I bet she could do right now, and the next Monday, she said she wanted to play.”

The Natural

Look even deeper into Gevaart’s transcript, and her forgotten career begins to unfold like a piece of fictionalized cinema. The stats alone are staggering.

After an injury-marred freshman campaign at Mattawan High School in 2008, she returned to the mound in 2009 to accumulate a 13-3 record with 132 strikeouts to 16 walks in 101.1 innings pitched to go along with a 1.24 earned run average (ERA).

The next season, she began 11-0 with 126 strikeouts to three walks in 67 innings pitched, and she did not allow a single earned run. A stress fracture in her right arm forced her to first base, although she was still named to the Division I all-state team at the conclusion of the season.

As a senior, Gevaart went 20-3 with 216 strikeouts to just 16 walks in 128 innings pitched, while leading her team all the way to the Division I state championship game.

For her career, Gevaart compiled a 49-6 career record in three years of varsity softball at MHS with 525 total strikeouts to 40 walks, a rate of 13.13 punch-outs to every base on balls surrendered. She averaged 12.41 strikeouts per seven innings, batted .350 for her career, was named all-conference, district and region all three years, and was a runner-up to Sara Driesenga — currently an All-Big Ten pitcher at the University of Michigan — as a senior in Michigan’s Miss Softball Pitcher of the Year voting.

Gevaart’s high school coaches, Alicia Smith and Teri Clark, remarked, “What could have her numbers been if she was healthy and we pitched her as much as we could have?” Portage Central High School softball coach Bernie Christopher had cast his vote for Miss Softball Pitcher for Gevaart instead of Driesenga and commented that “Teams win or lose with pitching in close games, and I don’t think Mattawan wins the state championship the way that they did without Lauren.”

Her high school teammates — from Hanne Stuedemann, now a second baseman at Ball State University, to Alyssa McBride, a successful shortstop at Michigan State University, to Loren Nagy, a promising young catcher at Western Michigan University, to Stacy Thompson, a pitcher at Ferris State University, to Emily McCarty, an outfielder at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, to Allie Havers, a freshman basketball player at the University of Nebraska who recently scored 17 points in a Big Ten tournament game — have all made their mark on the next level.

She was as talented as any of them, received an official offer and took an official visit “as a vacation,” but at the time, it wasn’t for her.

“I thought a long time about it, because logically, playing is what I felt I should do and what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t see myself playing, and I never saw myself super happy with it,” Gevaart said. “I had been doing it for so long, and I needed a break.”

Like Roy Hobbs before her, people might have said, “There goes Lauren Gevaart, the best there ever was in this game,” as she walked down the street, but it wasn’t to be; Gevaart decided to hang up her glove by choice and walked away healthy and on top to focus on other aims.

For the love of the game

Six mound appearances into her career at GVSU, Gevaart’s return to the diamond has been every bit as triumphant as Shoeless Joe Jackson’s, played by Ray Liotta in the film “Field of Dreams,” and Roy Hobbs’s, played by Robert Redford in “The Natural.”

Filling in for now-graduated Hannah Santora, Gevaart has paired with sophomore star Sara Andrasik to form a potent 1-2-power-punch atop the Laker pitching staff. The sample size is small and has been stiffed by inclement weather, but the results, so far, are promising.

“The talent has always been there, but I think she wanted to give it a try for one year to say that she played college softball,” Woods said. “Her heart’s in it, and she’s playing for the right reasons. We’re very pleased to have her playing, and I think we’re as excited to have her play as she is to play this year.”

In 30 innings pitched, Gevaart has used a potent rise ball, a recently added drop ball and change-up, and a stringent focus to avoid walks and get ahead in the count. She is 3-0 and has racked up 42 strikeouts to seven walks, a rate of six strikeouts to every walk and a rate of 9.8 Ks every seven innings.

A rate higher even than Jenn Mackson’s average of 9.45 strikeouts per seven innings in 2002, when she blazed the current GVSU single-season strikeout record (317 in 235.1 innings pitched).

“It was great working with Hannah Santora last year, but Lauren is an amazing pitcher, too,” Andrasik said. “I’ve gotten to work with her a lot this year, and I think we make for a good combo. We didn’t know she was coming on the team until late last semester, but I think she has been a great asset and has fit in really well.”

More than any other character in baseball film lore, however, perhaps the one the Lakers would prefer Gevaart to resemble most is Billy Chapel, played by Kevin Costner in ‘For the Love of the Game’, a character that pitches a perfect game in the final start of his career.

Prior to this season, Gevaart’s last official start came on June 18, 2011 on Diamond 3 of the Bailey Park Flannery Sports Complex. It was a a 13-strikeout, three-walk, complete-game, no-hitter — just the 13th no-hitter in MHSSA title game history — that secured the first Mattawan state championship in any sanctioned sport.

A start just as special as her appearance with the youth team from Mattawan District 15 back in 2006 that traveled all the way to Portland, Ore., to become the first team from Michigan to win a Little League World Series. Just as special as each one of her district, regional and conference championship starts — she approaches every game the same.

“My mindset doesn’t change from game to game, and I think when it gets time to pitch on a bigger stage, I’ll pitch it the same way that I approach every other game; like it could be the last game I ever pitch,” Gevaart said. “When your pitcher is calm, everyone else stays calm. When your pitcher gets worked up, everyone else gets worked up.”

A good tactic, as every start she makes — considering limiting weather, an injury-riddled past, an arm two years away from the game and a self-imposed shelf life — really could be her last.

At the conclusion of this season, Gevaart will retire once again to pursue her career in athletic training; she already has an internship lined up. Woods, of course, will retire, as well. With a swan song national championship in mind and a pitching staff foreseeably equipped to pursue it, the cinema of Gevaart’s curious career arc through softball isn’t quite ready for credits yet.

“I feel old sometimes, but after two years, it was time to come back,” Gevaart said. “I missed being a part of a team, having girls to play with that I can rely on all of the time, and more than the softball, and I have that here.

“I didn’t know a lot of the girls from last year, but the girls that have returned comprise a really strong core; I think it’s a strong team again. It was a little rocky at times in Florida, but I think as long as we play like we are capable of playing, we will do really well and can potentially make another deep run.”