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LAND O’LAKES — Lauren Evans picked the right time to have one of the best games of her life.
She was 10 years old, and her Land O’Lakes youth softball team was playing New Tampa in a playoff game. Evans delivered a perfect game, struck out 12 batters, and added a double and triple at the plate in her team’s victory.
Evans’ performance earned a postgame handshake and high praise from an opponent’s father — USF softball coach Ken Eriksen.
“I didn’t really understand who he was at first,” Evans said.
Five years later, the Academy at the Lakes star sophomore is a USF commit and one of the area’s top softball talents.
Evans leads Pasco County with a .661 average — second-best in Tampa Bay — to go with nine doubles and nine triples. Her 43 RBIs rank first in the North Suncoast and second in the bay area.
“You’d almost pay to watch her take batting practice. …” Wildcats coach Jerry English said. “She does everything mechanical-wise that you want a person to do. If you were to make a video tape, you’d use her as a role model.”
Evans has spent years finding that smooth swing. She began playing softball at 7 after soccer and basketball didn’t stick.
“She always had a knack of picking up a ball and throwing it around a little bit,” said her father, Earl, who played slow-pitch softball in the military.
Evans quickly fell in love with the sport, first in little league, then with the traveling Team FLA. Her dad estimates his 15-year-old has played in 300-400 games. That experience helped her ease into high school ball. She hit .487 as a freshman and was a Times' all-North Suncoast honorable mention.
It also helped her get the recruiting process out of the way quickly. USF invited her on an individual tour in February, before Evans had even played her second game as a sophomore. She liked the coaching staff she’s known for years, so she immediately committed to the nationally -ranked Bulls, who entered the weekend with a 38-5 record and 18 consecutive victories.
“I was really just overwhelmed,” Evans said. “This is what I’ve been working for my whole life.”
Such early commitments are more common in sports like basketball than softball. English said that colleges rarely began recruiting his players before their junior year during his 27 seasons at Land O’Lakes. Some recruits commit in the summer after their sophomore year, but few make up their minds so early.
“I’m just glad we don’t have to go through (the recruiting process) and she doesn’t have to go through that,” her dad said.
Evans instead can focus on improving her swing and leading the Wildcats (12-4) into the playoffs.
She’s a natural pitcher with a 0.98 ERA and 61 strikeouts, and athletic enough to be one of the best shortstops English has ever coached, but her long, 6-foot frame and consistent hitting project better at first base.
Evans continues to hone her swing. She focuses on the fundamentals every night in her garage, knocking balls off of a tee into the homemade padding her father nailed to the wall a few years ago.
She’s also focused on adding more muscle. Her first home run came two years ago, and she’s blasted four — second on the North Suncoast — this season. Her 43 RBIs rank second in Tampa Bay.
“I am tall, but I don’t think I’ve grown into my body yet,” Evans said. “I can get stronger.”
But she’s shown enough power when it counts. Evans smashed two home runs, including a walk-off blast in the ninth inning, to beat district foe Hernando Christian 6-5 last month.
She had already bashed one homer in last week’s game against Brooks-DeBartolo when she stepped up to the plate in the third inning.
With the Wildcats leading 14-0, her dugout called for her a walk-off grand slam that would enact the mercy rule.
Evans settled for a two-run double off the leftfield wall to end the game.
7A-9 at Steinbrenner
Tuesday: No. 5 Wiregrass Ranch vs. No. 4 Gaither, 7; Wednesday: Wiregrass/Gaither winner vs. No. 1 Chamberlain, 5; No. 3 Steinbrenner vs. No. 2 Freedom, 7; Thursday: Final, 7
6A-10 at River Ridge
Monday: No. 5 Land O’Lakes vs. No. 4 River Ridge, 7; Tuesday: No. 3 Mitchell vs. No. 2 Tarpon Springs, 5; No. 1 Sunlake vs. Land O’Lakes/River Ridge, 7; Thursday: final, 7
6A-6 at Lecanto
Monday: No. 4 Citrus vs. No. 5 West Port, 6; Tuesday: No. 1 Springstead vs. Citrus/West Port winner, 5; No. 2 Lecanto vs. No. 3 Central, 7; Thursday: final, 7
5A-8 at Pasco
Monday: No. 1 Gulf vs. No. 8 Anclote, 4:30; No. 2 Pasco vs. No. 7 Wesley Chapel, 7; Tuesday: No. 4 Fivay vs. No. 5 Hudson, 4:30; No. 3 Zephyrhills vs. No. 6 Ridgewood, 7; Wednesday: Gulf/Anclote winner vs. Fivay/Hudson winner, 4:30; Pasco/Wesley Chapel winner vs. Zephyrhills/Ridgewood winner, 7; Friday: final, 7
5A-7 at Crystal River
Tuesday: No. 4 Hernando vs. No. 5 Eustis, 5:30; No. 3 Crystal River vs. No. 6 Nature Coast, 7; Thursday: No. 1 Tavares vs. Hernando/Eustis winner, 5:30; No. 2 Dunnellon vs. Crystal River/Nature Coast winner, 7:30; Friday: final, 7
3A-8 at Bishop McLaughlin
Monday: No. 4 Tampa Prep vs. No. 5 Brooks-DeBartolo, 5; Tuesday: No. 2 Seffner Christian vs. No. 3 Carrollwood Day, 2:30; No. 1 Bishop McLaughlin vs. Tampa Prep/B-D winner, 5; Thursday: final, 5
2A-4 at Hernando Christian
Tuesday: No. 3 Seven Rivers Christian vs. No. 2 Hernando Christian, 4:30; Thursday: No. 1 Academy at the Lakes vs. HCA/Seven Rivers winner, 4:30