Lauren Stewart always seems to be smiling. South Carolina’s redshirt junior outfielder has seen the highs and lows each year of her collegiate career, but patience has paid off as a reliance on her faith and a solid personal support system within the team and at home has helped her become a big part of the Gamecocks’ success in 2019.
“My mindset over the summer was that I was going to come back better than I’ve ever been and this is going to the best season I’ve ever had,” Stewart said.
The Alpharetta, Ga., native began her college career at Purdue where she started every game as a freshman, batted .306, and led the team in runs and doubles while ranking seventh in the Big 10 Conference with 18 stolen bases. While things seemed to be going well, a desire to be closer to home led Stewart to transfer to South Carolina.
“I definitely loved Purdue. I loved the school, the atmosphere and the softball team,” Steward said. “I just figured that a new place was going to be best for me. As soon as I visited South Carolina, I knew there was definitely something there for me. With it being closer to home, and it being in a big conference with the SEC, I knew it was going to be a great fit.
“The best part about being here at South Carolina is the culture of all the sports, the fans in the community, and how we have such a big impact on not only people who come to our games and the little girls that see us and look up to us, but on the community as a whole and how this university is represented.”
Stewart didn’t recapture the same individual on-field success initially with the Gamecocks. Although South Carolina was an NCAA Tournament team in 2017, Stewart played more of a reserve role, playing in 50 games with 11 starts in the outfield while being used primarily as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. She went 2-for-14 in limited plate appearances, but Stewart stayed patient and wasn’t worried.
“It was definitely mentally challenging, but I wanted to be the best teammate possible,” Stewart said. “I tried not to focus on things I couldn’t control. I was just trying to be prepared for when my name was called and tried to stay as positive as possible. I was still only a sophomore, and while I do have very high expectations for myself, I knew that the team still needed me. So, I tried to focus more on the team. It drove me to keep working, and I tried to focus on what I could bring to the table, whether it was my speed, my hitting, or my play in the outfield.
“I knew that changing schools was going to be a hard transition. I knew there were going to be different cultures, different coaching styles, and different teammates. I knew that with the right people around me and having such a good family around me here at South Carolina, I was going to be just fine.”
Stewart kept working, but her situation took a turn for the worse in 2018 as a hip injury sidelined her for the entire year.
“In October going into that season, I started experiencing some groin pain and then as we got closer to the season, the pain was worse,” Stewart said. “I found out I had lots of different bone impingements in my hip, and that had caused my labrum to tear. We actually found out that it had been torn since I was around 14 years old, and I never knew it.”
Instead of being out for a few weeks, Stewart had to have season-ending hip surgery with a 10-month recovery.
“I had to work for a full year to get back and try to help my team,” Stewart said. “It was mentally challenging, and it was emotionally draining. With the help of my family and my team and my faith, I had to just keep the faith that everything was happening for a reason. I had to realize that this was only temporary and that I was going to be back on the field, so I was going to have to work extra hard.”
Stewart sought help from family as well as health professionals available through South Carolina Athletics and Gamecock Sports Science.
“With my family, we’re Christian, and that has played a huge part in my being able to come back,” Stewart said. “Not being able to swing a bat or play the game for months and months at a time, and then suddenly getting back in front of live pitching again can be very scary. My mom (Beverly), my family, and some very close friends helped keep me on the right path.
“I also spent time speaking with one of our school psychologists through (Sports Wellness Coordinator) Sarah Noll, and she has definitely helped me.”
Being on a team but not being able to participate can feel alienating, but Stewart said she still felt like she belonged.
“After my surgery, just being in the dugout with my teammates and seeing things like (Krystan White) Whitey’s walk-off home run last year and moments like that were great, and I still felt like I was part of the team even though I had obstacles to get over.”
After a lot of hard work and rehab, Stewart is not only stronger and faster, but she also found that playing form that made her an impact player on an every day basis. She’s a starter in the outfield and is among the team leaders in batting average, on base percentage and stolen bases.
“I’ve just been focusing on what I can bring to the table to help the team,” Stewart said. “Over the summer, I did workouts for my recovery two and three times per week for about an hour and forty-five minutes to two hours each. They were extremely hard, but I got a lot stronger and faster.”
While doing some of her rehab home in Georgia, she was able to go to the Atlanta Hawks training facility.
“I was beside some of the best athletes out there!” Stewart said. “I was thinking, I’m out here with some of the big dogs, so I’d better perform like one. It was extremely fun. After we came back from winter break, we scrimmaged a lot. I was feeling really confident, and I was seeing the ball well. In the outfield, I was able to open up my hips more to go and get fly balls. So, I knew I was ready.”
So far, so good. She has even added some power and is tied for second on the team with five home runs.
“I’m a little girl, and they don’t expect me to hit a lot of home runs, but I’ve been working out a lot,” Steward said. “I hit a grand slam when we were in Florida at tournament this year, and coming around third, I just flexed (her arms) and they put that out on social media. That was funny.”
Stewart is majoring in journalism and intends to work in sports broadcasting. For now, she’s hoping broadcasters will be talking about the Gamecocks going on another great run in the postseason. That would be just another reason for Lauren Stewart to flash that smile.