It is a bright spring day. The sun beats down on the ballfield, its rays accentuating the hue of the outfield grass, turning the stalks fluorescent green. The dirt, combed and swept, is hot to the touch and quick to disperse — a bad recipe for sharply hit groundballs. Hits are no concern here, though. Not in this game; not with this pitcher on the mound.
She jogs to the mound, glove in hand, mask tightly fastened. Her hand picks the softball from the dirt and shakes it. Flecks of rock fall away, wisps of dust ripple and fade into the air. She pins the ball against her waist and spins it. Once. Twice. On and on she rotates it, thumbing the seams and eyeing her catcher, who squats behind the small, white pentagon. Her gaze is unflinching, a steeled look of confidence. The players of the other team grow silent, their eyes trained upon her; the simple sight of her toeing the rubber is consuming. Yet to her, today is simply another day, another game. Her hand stills, signaling the beginning of her motion.
Ball and glove come together, raised high overhead. As they peak, she rocks back, her right foot arcing. As her hands come down, they separate, and her right swings back as she leans forward. At its apex, the arm comes back through, a windmill of unchained power. As it comes she pushes from the mound, her right leg thrusting her body forward, her left lunging out to catch her momentum. Her left arm has swung wide, opening the gate for her hip to lead her right arm. As the arm completes its circle and heads for home, the energy flowing through her fingertips and into the ball, she picks up her right foot and plants the left, locking it in place as her body pushes through. The ball rockets from her hand with a neat flick of the wrist. In that moment, she is a lion let loose — pure energy enveloped in a leather stitched, 12-inch circumference and 6.25 ounce neon orb, ironically named softball.
The catcher’s mitt pops, an echo that ripples across the diamond. The sound is coupled with the smack of the ball returning to the pitcher’s glove, chorused with the sharp cry of the umpire, his hand clenched into a tight fist as he bellows: Strike! Not a moment wasted, she paces back to one step beyond the mound, turns on heel and awaits the next sign. This is Lauren Decker.
Decker is a senior at Hood River Valley High School, where she is the ace pitcher and second batter in the lineup for the Eagles. She is a force on the mound, but her journey to becoming one of the most dominant pitchers in the 5A division began at the age of eight, when she first heard about the sport being played locally.
“My neighbor’s daughter was playing and her mom gave my parents the form,” said Decker. “I had never tried sports before, other than gymnastics, so I was interested. I started with little league and played that for a few years, then got into travel ball and stayed with that through high school.”
Decker’s career as a pitcher began soon after she started playing. In her second year she picked up the position at the insistence of her father, and fell in love with the role for how vital it was to the flow and control of the game, as well as the mental connection she could perfect day in and day out.
“I like being so involved in the game, and the mental part that comes with pitching,” said Decker. “Connecting my mind with my body. Even practice pitching is fun for me because I like being able to make adjustments and figure out what I did wrong and how I can make the pitch go where I want it to.”
While Decker’s passion for pitching was compounded year over year, the challenges she faced quickly grew as well. Her smaller size left her disadvantaged at conjuring power and speed in the pitch, forcing her to focus on perfecting her motion down to the last detail. She began to practice constantly with her father, and sought professional help from a pitching coach, Sue Oran, whom she has worked with for years.
“Her pitching coach constantly told her that because of her size, she could not get away with flaws in her pitching motion,” said Mike Decker, Lauren’s father. “She had to be perfect from the ground up to generate the power, speed and movement to propel the ball to the perfect location. Lauren learned to always pay attention to the small things, being smart with every pitch or play.”
Decker is self-described as a contact pitcher, meaning one who focuses on getting hitters to hit weak groundballs or pop ups for outs, rather than going for strikeouts. Despite this classification, she has often dominated teams with her precision and pitching repertoire, particularly this season for the Hood River Valley Eagles, where she boasts a 15-6 record and a 1.8 ERA. Decker is the ace for the Eagles, and was spotted long before her high school reign began.
“Lauren has always been a talented pitcher,” said Eric Keller, head coach of the HRVHS Softball team. “The varsity assistant coach and I would watch her throw bullpens when she was in eighth grade and talk about how talented she was and dreamed of the impact she would have on the program.”
Her career, equal parts challenge and reward, has culminated in this senior season. The Eagles are 18-6 on the year and currently ranked No. 2 in the state, thanks in part to Decker. She has started on the mound in 20 of the 24 games played this season, often throwing the complete seven innings with unflinching reserve. She has racked up 106 strikeouts while giving up 115 hits, 61 runs and 25 walks. She also threw a no-hitter against Lakeridge on April 10 and has pitched back-to-back games in a double header without the slightest hint of wavering. Her presence on the mound has her brimming with confidence, while her routines keep her relaxed. With each out, she completes a series of handshakes and signs with her teammates, a brief joyous break in a campaign of intensity and focus.
“To some her presence may be intimidating, especially those that haven’t faced her before,” said Tina Decker, Lauren’s mother. “I believe that what most teams expect the first time they see her is that because of her stature they will be able to handle her. She soon changes that assumption. I tend to think it is a mix of intensity, focus, dogged determination and quiet confidence that she can get her job done for her team; she expects nothing less from herself.”
“Her success this season has been in her preparation,” said Keller. “She sets goals and is determined to achieve them. Never is she satisfied with the status quo; excellence is all that she will accept.”
Decker’s efforts and success were not without recognition and reward. She recently signed her letter of intent to attend the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo. The college is a division II NCAA competitor known for its engineering program; both were the drive behind Decker’s decision. Her transition from high school to college is an exciting one, but not without its share of emotion.
“I knew I wanted to study engineering, so my dad talked to people he knew and a friend of his at work mentioned the school,” said Decker. “Academics was my main focus, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice those just to play softball. The school had everything I was looking for — attainable skill level to compete at and a great engineering program.”
“The process has been emotional for Mike and I,” said Tina Decker. “Absolutely amazing, unbelievable, rewarding, compelling, inspirational, humbling and stressful. We didn’t just witness it, Lauren took us for an exhilarating ride, from game to game, tournament to tournament, championship to championship. It’s an ending of our walk next to her on her journey, and the beginning of her walk on her own as an adult. The ending of one chapter and the beginning of another. At the same time, she is ready. She has been chomping at the bit since the beginning of her junior year when Mines showed interest and confidence in her abilities on the field and in the classroom. She will soar, as coach Keller would say.”
Before she hangs up her Eagles uniform and becomes an Oredigger, Decker and the rest of the Eagles have some goals left to achieve. The postseason begins May 22 and continues over the following two weeks. Hood River, with Decker and a few other leaders at the helm, have demonstrated their capability and perseverance. How far they go, whether they play for the title, all will be determined soon.
“My expectation is to do what I can to get the team as far as we can go,” said Decker. “At the end of the day, I just want to get out with the win. My goal is to win state, that’s what this year is about. I want to give my team the best opportunity I can to do well.”
Regardless of how the Eagles do, the career of this ace, that began at the age of eight, that saw her overcome the challenges of her small size, that filled her parents with joy and pride through the years, that saw her talent blossom into dominance, will not end when this season concludes. There will be more games to pitch, more tournaments to play and more championships to contend for. With her confidence, poise and approach to the game and to life, there’s no doubt that whatever steps to the plate, Decker will triumph.