COVINGTON, Ga. — Here’s how much Eastside softball coach Heather Wood missed Lauren Burnett last year.
When asked about the impact of losing Burnett to a shoulder injury early last season, Wood started to speak excitedly about the benefit of the sophomore Georgia commit’s return. Then she had to pause for a moment to collect her thoughts and try again.
“I really can’t put it into words how valuable Lauren’s return is for us this year,” Wood said. “I can’t even articulate it. We’re just so excited. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that all goes well throughout the season. But Lauren, you know, she did what she was supposed to do during the offseason. She rehabbed it, she took time off, she did all the right things to take care of herself to get ready to go for the season.”
Burnett, herself, is just as thrilled to be back on the field as her coach is to have her.
Mention last year’s abbreviated freshman season, and the young infielder will laugh and give a little eye roll, indicating just how frustrating not being able to play was for her.
“I’m not used to not playing,” Burnett said. “It was very hard not to play last year. I’ve never experienced something like that before.”
Burnett can’t pinpoint exactly when her injury occurred. All she knows is she “tore something above my rotator cup. Maybe from overuse, we don’t really know.”
But shortly after surgery, the UGA pledge fell into a twice-a-week therapy routine and raised some eyebrows with the speed of her return to form.
“I recovered faster than anyone thought I would,” Burnett said. “I think it was really the fact that not only was I not playing, but I couldn’t do anything softball related at all. I think that’s really what motivated me.”
To be sure, Eastside had another respectable season even in Burnett’s absence. The Lady Eagles finished their 2018 campaign with a 22-10 record overall and a 6-1 Region 4-AAAA finish, placing second behind region champion Hampton.
Wood’s squad was hoping to make a return trip to Columbus for the state tournament, following its somewhat unexpected 2017 run. But Eastside ran into a hungry Perry squad that knocked them off in the first round, at home no less.
Burnett said watching Eastside underachieve in the postseason has seemingly turned on a different kind of focus in this year’s team.
“Really, mostly winning is what we expect this year, and I guess just not goofing around as much,” she said. “I feel like last year, not really everybody took it serious when we got to the playoffs, and I feel like we’re way more serious now than we were last year.”
Wood believes Burnett’s return can help undergird that more serious mindset. But the infielder’s ample talent will help tangibly.
Burnett committed to UGA as an eighth grader at Indian Creek Middle and was looking to create a freshman dynamic duo with Natalie Ray last year. The injury ensured that didn’t happen as planned, but now the return of Burnett’s big bat and sharp shortstop instincts — coupled with Ray’s maturation with a full year at Eastside under her belt — could give the Lady Eagles a plethora of offensive weapons while giving Wood more defensive combinations to play with.
“Lauren’s really going to be able to step up for us both in the infield and offensively,” Wood said. “Last year when she got hurt, we had to pull some people around in the infield, and that hurt us a bit. But now with Lauren coming back, we can shift Alysee (Dobbs) over at third, since we lost Jordan Rittenbacher to graduation, and that should really give us a solid infield.”
But it isn’t just coaches excited to see Burnett back. Count senior pitcher Kailey Rusk among those anxious to see what her younger teammate can bring this season.
“I think her return can be very big for us,” Rusk said. “Like, her bat and her fielding is going to be a really big thing for our team, something we need.”
Rusk knows Burnett’s talents first hand, as she plays with Burnett and Ray on the Atlanta Vipers travel ball team. Burnett said the ability to play with her Eastside teammates during the travel season has only bolstered the trio’s camaraderie for high school ball.
“We communicate a lot, especially after at-bats and with different pitchers,” she said. “That communication with each other is really good for us.”
Believe it or not, Burnett also said her time away from the diamond last year — as difficult as it was — helped her improve her game cerebrally, while giving her permission to not put as much pressure on herself.
“It mostly helped my mindset in the game and my confidence,” she said. “Like, now I feel like if I make an error or something, I don’t get down on myself anymore. I know it’s not worth it, because I could actually not be playing.”
And in 2019, there will be no playing with a fear of injuring herself again. In fact, she only has intentions of going harder than before.
“I’m really not afraid of anything,” she said. “I just stretch more and do everything right to keep myself strong and healthy. I’m practicing more too, like every day. In travel ball, I do everything I used to do now, and I want to do the same in school ball. I’m fully recovered.”