Berg keeping things fun at OSU

Oregon State University women’s softball head coach Laura Berg adjust her hat during a game against the Arizona Wildcats April 4 in Corvallis.

Josh Worden Senior Beat Reporter

OSU softball coach Laura Berg is an Olympic Gold Medalist, but she focuses on keeping things light

If softball accolades were a currency, Laura Berg would be the richest person in the nation.

Berg is the most decorated American softball player of all time, owning 10 Gold Medals and 11 total medals from the Olympics, the Pan American Games and the International Softball Federation World Championships. She was a four-time All-American at Fresno State, she won the 1998 NCAA National Championship and had the USA’s game-winning hit in the 2000 Olympic Gold Medal Game.

Now in her fourth year as OSU’s head coach, Berg recently earned her 100th win with the Beavers.

Berg has earned the respect of the softball community, but she doesn’t carry self-righteousness. In fact, one of the personality traits her players at OSU see most often is not arrogance or pride, but goofiness.

Take her prank in 2012 for example, when the Beavers were in Oklahoma for the NCAA Regional games. While the team was preparing for practice, she climbed into an athletic bag in the team’s training room.

“[The trainer] would say ‘Hey, can you grab some towels out of my bag?’ And when they would open up the bag, I’d reach out and scare them,” Berg remembered with a laugh.

Her practical jokes and congenial personality are part of an effort to relate to her players on a personal level, especially counteracting the intimidation a collegiate athlete might have when trying to learn from an Olympic Gold Medalist.

“These guys have to understand that I was in their shoes once,” Berg said. “I wasn’t born an Olympian.”

The Santa Fe Springs, Calif. native joined OSU in 2012 as an assistant and earned her first NCAA head coaching job one season later with the Beavers. This year, her team is on pace to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, and Berg’s coaching efforts have been based around both hard-nosed teaching and the occasional practical joke.

“Obviously there’s the gold medals and the experience that she talks about, but her being fun and crazy makes it that much better,” said redshirt junior Natalie Hampton, who was a freshman in Berg’s first year as head coach. “It makes me, and I know all my teammates, want to do so well for her. She has treated us so well and done so much for us on and off the field. It’s crazy to think about, really. She’s awesome.”

Berg is also known for being harsh when she needs to be, but she’s quick to joke around when appropriate. Senior second baseman Mikela Manewa knows this best; Manewa earns some ribbing from Berg because her hips give out occasionally, so Berg calls her “grandma.” Manewa fires back by calling her coach an “old lady.”

“She’s a prankster,” Manewa said. “I’ll say something and she’ll have a comeback in two seconds, and I’ll just stand there like ‘okay, she’s too quick. I can never win with her.’ She’s always joking around. She’s crazy, but I really like her a lot.”

Berg employs more than just witty insults as part of her coaching style. She’s also “probably the most humble person you’ll meet,” says freshman outfielder Shelby Weeks, and she likes to defer praise to her players when the Beavers do well.

“A monkey could do my job,” Berg said.

Naturally, her background has helped in getting high school prospects interested in coming to Corvallis. It’s not easy to recruit softball players to OSU, which typically has to travel out of the state for all nonconference games. Schools in California and Arizona have warmer weather and more recruits nearby to draw from, but OSU’s recruiting class two years ago ranked No. 3 in the nation.

“It was an honor,” Weeks said of the recruiting process. “If the best outfielder and the best slap hitter almost in the world wants to recruit me, that is a blessing. I was excited. I was like, ‘Who would pass up this opportunity?’”

Berg has had plenty of highlights at OSU — the Beavers’ 34 wins in 2013 were the most under a new head coach in OSU history, and the Beavers have set a new program record in batting average every year Berg has been at the helm. OSU is on pace to shatter last year’s record of .298 with a current .328 average.

Still, Berg’s time at OSU hasn’t always been smooth. The Beavers have missed out on the postseason the last two seasons, going 44-57 in that span.

“It’s coming along a little slower than I want, but this has taught me patience,” Berg said.

“Coach Berg is a winner. She doesn’t handle losing well,” Hampton added. “Which is great, I love that in her. I think those couple years were a growing experience for her.”

OSU has been on the rise the last few years, going from 18 wins two years ago to 26 wins last season and already 24 victories this year with 13 games remaining. A few more wins this season would likely secure an NCAA Tournament bid, and Berg’s individual talent has translated into her players’ development.

“She’s very hands-on, and that helps a lot,” said sophomore outfielder Lovie Lopez. “When you get a coach that can tell you what to do but also show you what to do, it’s just like, what else can you ask for?”

Maybe the only way Berg could contribute more would be finding another year of eligibility, but she spent her final collegiate game winning the NCAA title in 1998. But, what if?

“Shoot, [her batting average would be] frickin’ .850,” Hampton said. “On-base percentage would be insane, break all the records. I would love to play with her. It’s a blessing to be coached by her, but I want to know what it would be like to play with her. I feel like she would be a player that pushed everybody to get 10 times better every single day, because that’s how she coaches.”

Berg won’t play collegiate softball again, but clearly her days impacting the collegiate level are not over. Her vision at OSU is to both achieve greatness on the field — Pac-12 titles and national championships included, she says, nothing is out of the question — and create influential relationships with her players.

“I want to have a connection with these guys. I want them, in the years to come, to call me up and say ‘Hey coach, you really influenced me and inspired me to get to this point,’” Berg said. “We prepare these guys to be ready for the hard stuff, because at times it’s going to get hard. So are they going to cower away from it or are they going to flourish? Are they going to welcome that hard stuff? That’s what we’re going to try and do, have them flourish when it gets hard.”

On Twitter @BrightTies

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