Howe Field was built in 1936. It was a small stadium, only fitting 1,400 fans in its bleachers. It was outdated and run-down, but to Lauren Burke it embodied Oregon softball.
And playing in that stadium, playing for that Oregon team, was her dream.
“This was really the only Oregon sport that I watched,” Burke said. “When I was super young, we went to the basketball games and the football games, but softball games were always the ones I wanted to go to.”
Years later, Burke achieved that dream.
From watching on the Howe Field bleachers, to wearing the Duck uniform out on the diamond at Jane Sanders Stadium, she is now a utility player for Oregon — thanks to an initial spark from head coach Mike White when she was a child.
Burke may only be a freshman for Oregon, but she’s no stranger to Eugene or its softball community. Her career began when White gave her one of her first opportunities on the field, one that would launch her through early club teams and a breakout career at Marist Catholic High School. And along the way, Burke left a lasting impression on her community.
From White’s club team to Oregon
Seven-year-old Burke was sitting in a dugout watching her sister Shawna’s softball practice when the team realized it was short players that day. White, the coach, saw Burke and told her to pick up a glove and get in the outfield.
It was her first introduction to fast-pitch softball, and she was hooked.
After joining White’s club team, the Eugene Thunder, it wasn’t long before she earned a nickname that the White family still refers to her by to this day.
“We called her ‘Crazy Legs’ for years because when she ran she looked like the roadrunner,” said Sidney White, Mike’s daughter who played on the team along with the Burke sisters. “She has these long, little skinny legs and they would just turn and flail when she ran.”
Her father, Jon Burke, helped White on the field as an assistant coach, The two families grew close and later became neighbors in Coburg. Even when White took the head coaching position at Oregon in 2010, the families remained friends.
Eventually, Burke joined two other club teams, the Northwest Bullets and the Beverly Bandits.
The Bandits, a selective high school summer travel team based out of Chicago, took Lauren around the country as she formed friendships with her future Oregon teammates Miranda Elish and Alexis Mack.
In the summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school, she got a chance to play for White again. Burke didn’t have to think twice when White offered her a spot on the Ducks’ roster.
“When he offered her her scholarship, she committed on the spot,” Jon said. “She didn’t even look at me or think about it. She said, ‘I’m in.’ There really wasn’t anything to think about.”
Burke is the team’s first Eugene-native player in 12 years. In fact, Burke was so set on Oregon that there really was no plan-B. According to Jon, they weren’t even going to look at other schools unless they heard a “no” from Oregon.
“Everyone in Eugene knew who Lauren Burke was just because of how well she did at softball,” Ariel Carlson, a former teammate of Burke, said. “It’s really cool seeing her now play for Oregon because when she gets up to bat, you can tell everyone is rooting for her and everyone is like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Lauren Burke. She went to Marist High School.’ And the whole vibe in the stadium changes when she gets up.”
So far this season, Burke hit a home run, four RBIs and scored nine runs in her first four games.
Dedicated from childhood to high school
As a kid, Burke imagined herself sprinting to a base while she ran down the hallways at her grandma’s. On the carpeted floors, she would practice sliding under chairs as if securing her safety on an imaginary base.
She spent countless hours in the family’s homemade batting cage. Underneath an extended covering of the family’s barn, Jon strung a fence and laid down some turf to create a personal hitting and pitching facility for Burke and Shawna.
The barn became a place of bonding for the girls.
“We were there all the time, just having fun and talking,” Burke said.
With the help of her former hitting coach, Alabama All-American and Eugene-native Kayla Braud, Burke focused on becoming a triple threat at the plate. She could bunt, and she could make contact, but she wanted to hone-in on becoming a power hitter.
All the practice slides at her grandma’s and all the days spent in the barn paid off. In her junior year, Burke hit 21 home runs and batted 0.701 over the course of the team’s 30 games.
Burke’s offensive surge became evident to Jon when she hit four consecutive home runs in a single game, a record that placed second in the nation.
“We were just shocked, couldn’t believe it,” Jon said. “I knew she was a good hitter, but to do that, it was pretty cool to see.”
For Missy Doerr, a Marist assistant coach at the time, Burke’s hitting was more than just a way for the team to score runs; it was what made Burke stand out.
“She just goes up with so much confidence. For me, that’s the most exciting thing to watch,” Doerr said. “She’s knowing that she’s going to get a hit, I mean not in a cocky way, but it’s great to have that mentality when you go up the plate.”
Capping her career at Marist, Burke helped the Spartans earn the 5A Oregon State Championship against Dallas in June of 2017, for the school’s first state championship title since 2009 (when it was 4A).
Becoming a local mentor
Burke’s confidence and passion for the sport are contagious.
Carlson first met Burke at an Oregon softball clinic for high school players during Burke’s sophomore year at Marist, playing two seasons together as Spartans. In a couple years, the two will be teammates again when Carlson joins Burke at Oregon.
“It was kind of this surreal thing,” Carlson said of seeing Burke teach Oregon’s softball clinics this past fall. “Because it was like, ‘I’m going to be doing that in two years.’ So, it just made my commitment to Oregon seem even more real, seeing it lived out by Burke.”
With her community connections and her knowledge of the sport, Burke is a mentor and an inspiration to local softball players.
“Softball has given me so much that I want to give a lot to younger kids who are playing it too,” Burke said.
Lindsey Stripling, a junior on Junction City High School’s softball roster, had never hit a home run.
In her first nine years of playing, Stripling got nervous every time she stood at home plate watching the pitcher staring back at her.
That was until she met Burke.
Once a week for three years, Stripling met Burke at the Marist softball fields for hitting lessons. Burke rebuilt more than a hitter. She made Stripling a confident, passionate softball player.
Now, when Stripling, a Southern Oregon University softball commit, steps up to the plate, she wants to be there. She looks at the pitcher and hears Burke in her head: “You are just going to hit it as hard as you can. You want to hit it right back at that pitcher. She does not deserve to be facing you right now.”
“I would probably not be the player I am today if it wasn’t for Lauren,” Stripling said.