Time left for Hampton

Joshua Lucas Daily Barometer
Natalie Hampton

Josh Worden Senior Beat Reporter

OSU softball first baseman Natalie Hampton has another year left in her career to reach her goals, even if things seemed dismal a year ago

Natalie Hampton is very happy she isn’t playing her final games in an Oregon State uniform this weekend.

In a sense, Hampton’s home stretch of her career should begin in the OSU softball team’s friday Regional game in Auburn, Ala. against South Carolina Upstate — its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2013. Hampton has played like a senior this year, batting a career best .342 with a team-high .589 slugging percentage. The 6-foot-1 first baseman’s true freshman campaign was back in 2013, when she earned All-Pac-12 honors while setting the OSU single season record with 50 runs batted in.

Nothing was going to stop Hampton in her next three seasons, all the way to her expected final go-round in 2016. But sometimes, plans have a funny way of changing.

Hampton broke her hand after her freshman year in an off-field accident, forcing her to redshirt in 2014. While the Beavers went 34-24 in Hampton’s freshman year, she had to sit on the bench the entire next season while watching her team struggle to an 18-31 record and miss the postseason.

To this day, she doesn’t like to talk about the injury. Instead, she did a lot more than talk in the year following her broken hand. She got to work rehabbing, focusing on her expected return in 2015.

But again, plans have a funny way of changing.

About a week before OSU’s first game of 2015, Hampton was hit on the hand by a ball during batting practice. She took an X-Ray and the results confirmed her worst fear.

“The thing was shattered,” Hampton said.

She was ushered into surgery the next day, delaying her sophomore season a second time.

“It kinda kills you,” Hampton said of the second injury. “I worked so hard on my redshirt year, getting stronger in the weight room, running and working on the mental aspect of the game. I think we were leaving a week after I broke it. Instead of playing the first weekend, I was in a cast. But it’s okay, I can’t change it now. Everything happens for a reason. What’s done is done. Just because you work hard doesn’t mean you’re going to get everything you want.”

She still came back later that season, managing to play in 30 of the team’s 52 games and earned Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 honors. She showed flashes of her previous success, not to mention her ability to simply be on the field unlike the prior season. But, she clearly wasn’t at the level of her freshman year. Her batting average of .238 was the lowest among OSU’s starters and she had just 19 hits to go along with 13 strikeouts. After getting 50 RBIs two years prior, she totaled just 17 in 2015.

“Now, I kind’ve take last year with a grain of salt,” Hampton said. “Obviously I got hurt one week before opening day down in Arizona. Obviously it’s a tough pill to swallow after redshirting, so I hadn’t seen the field in a year and a half. I just kind’ve took that. It’s alright, obviously I didn’t do as well as I wanted to. I’m going to have three and a half years here instead of four full, and that’s fine. But it taught me a lot and made me stronger mentally.”

Even if Hampton couldn’t contribute on the field herself, that didn’t prevent her from contributing at all; when Manewa had to fill in at first base for a time during Hampton’s injury, Hampton made sure she did everything to prepare her teammate for the position. Manewa stands nine inches shorter than Hampton at just 5-foot-4, but that was no matter for Hampton.

“I told coach I had played first base before, but I never did in my life,” Manewa said. “I would ask Natalie what the plays are and what to do. She would always be there helping me. She’s always supporting. I know some players would be really mad about it. She was 100 percent supporting us.”

“With Natalie, it’s not about Natalie,” added head coach Laura Berg. “It’s about the team and what she can do to help. When you look at that, it takes the pressure off.”

Hampton says during this season she has felt “probably as good as freshman year,” and it’s showed. She stands in the top five on the team in batting average (.342), slugging percentage (.589), on base percentage (.406), hits (54), RBIs (48), doubles (10), home runs (9), total bases (93) and fielding percentage (.992).

From a team standpoint, things have vastly improved from the last two years as well. OSU is 30-18-1 and headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Hampton’s last full season.

It didn’t take Hampton long this year to get close to breaking her own OSU record of 50 RBIs in a season, as if to prove that she’s returned to her expected talent level after two seasons mired by injuries. Two more RBIs would tie her own mark from 2013.

But at the same time, it hasn’t all been smooth. After totaling 34 RBIs in the first 25 games, Hampton’s production dipped as soon as the Pac-12 season started. Facing some of the best competition in the NCAA, Hampton has recorded just 14 RBIs in the 24 games since. She went nine consecutive games without an RBI until finally notching her 48th of the season against Arizona State on Friday.

“There’s times where the ball is the size of a BB, and there’s times where the ball is the size of a beach ball,” coach Berg said. “Sometimes, she puts too much pressure on herself.”

But luckily for Hampton, she’s still got at least two more games left this season in the double-elimination bracket, allowing her to both reach her RBI record and — more importantly to her — win some ball games.

“For the team, I just want to win,” Hampton said. “Have good games, compete, get better every day. I want to learn from coach Berg, I want to learn everything she has to teach me. I’ve soaked up a lot but I come to practice and I learn something new every day, and I’m almost 22. There’s still more to do. There’s still more to do, still more to do. I’m excited to do that with her next year.”

Plus, there’s next year. If Hampton hadn’t gotten hurt, she wouldn’t have been able to return for 2017 alongside a host of young talent in Corvallis that’s poised for another run to the postseason. OSU loses just two starters this year and gains one of the nation’s highest-rated recruits in pitcher Nerissa Eason.

Now, when Hampton thinks about her hopes for her career at OSU, she can include the 2017 season that she was never supposed to get. She’s had her downturns, including the hand injuries and occasional struggles at the plate. There has been plenty that Hampton could complain about, but regrets are the last thing she wants when she looks back on her time with the Beavers.

“All I know is I want the most impressionable mark I can, whether that’s in the record books or to little girls coming out for autographs after the game,” Hampton said. “I don’t care, I just want to get my money’s worth. That’s what I always tell myself, whether it’s on the field or off, stats, records, whatever. Having that extra year is going to get me there, I think. I just don’t want to have any regrets during my career.”

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