KENT: For her first three years at Kent State, Shannon Laughlin was a walk-on who made it, sort of.
If you call being a redshirt freshman bullpen catcher who couldn’t go on road trips making it.
If you call spending two years on the softball team without financial assistance and playing any position that had an opening making it.
But Laughlin, a four-year starting catcher at Fairview High School, remained undaunted, even by shoulder surgery after her sophomore year at KSU. She went into the operating room thinking she needed a minor procedure for tendinitis that would keep her out four weeks. When she awoke from anesthesia, she was told she had a torn labrum and was facing nine months of rehab.
Even now, Laughlin, a 23-year-old senior from Fairview Park, doesn’t know what caused the injury.
“Might have been the bullpen stuff,” she whispered.
But Laughlin’s determination through that drudgery was eventually rewarded. In 2011, she earned the starting job at first base, a position she hasn’t surrendered, and a scholarship. A left-handed hitter with power, she has climbed from hitting eighth in the order to batting cleanup.
On April 24, she was named Mid-American Conference East Division player of the week. Going into a regular season-ending trip to Ohio today and Sunday, she was hitting .324 (12-for-37) in her past 11 games with four doubles, one home run, nine RBI and seven runs scored.
As the Golden Flashes (26-26, 11-9) battle for the fourth seed and a first-round bye in the MAC Tournament that runs Wednesday through Saturday at Firestone Stadium, Laughlin was hitting .250 (36-for-147) with 13 doubles, four home runs and 23 RBI, .281 (18-for-64) in conference play.
And she’s finishing her career in grueling fashion, becoming the first player in coach Karen Linder’s 16 years at Kent State to do her student teaching in the spring. Linder said Laughlin got up at 5:30 a.m. to make it to Kent Roosevelt High School, then rushed to practice after school was out.
“To go from just showing up at a tryout and sticking with it for the last five years is just incredible,” Linder said of Laughlin Tuesday.
Laughlin knows some of her struggles were of her own doing. Her high school grades weren’t very good, so she couldn’t get a scholarship. She had offers to play at smaller schools, but the tuition was higher and her family’s finances were limited.
“Shannon struggled in high school,” said Jo Ann Allen, the former Fairview softball coach who retired after 28 years after Laughlin’s senior season. “I made a couple phone calls and they’d say, ‘What’s the grade situation?’ Once they’d hear that, it’s ‘There’s not much we can do.’ I felt terrible. Talent-wise she was probably one of the most deserving kids I’d ever coached.”
Once she was accepted by Kent State, Laughlin decided to try out for softball. Linder knew nothing about her but coveted catchers and said she kept her because Laughlin had “a pretty good bat and a strong arm.” But early that spring, when the Golden Flashes were on their way to a 46-win season and MAC regular-season and tournament titles, Linder knew she wouldn’t be able to play Laughlin. She asked her to be the only freshman she has redshirted without an injury issue.
In an interview before weightlifting Tuesday at the M.A.C. Center, Laughlin admitted how she felt when the pitchers she was warming up kept running onto the field and she couldn’t.
“It was awful. It was rough. It wasn’t easy,” she said. “There were a lot of phone calls home wondering if I was going to make it or if I wanted to make it.”
But Laughlin’s parents, divorced when she was 9, and her two older brothers reassured her. Her teammates kept her spirits up.
“That made it easier. I couldn’t imagine not spending every day with them once I had for six months,” she said.
She could have quit when learning she needed surgery, but Laughlin looked at it differently.
“I felt that was a new starting point,” she said. “I thought when I came back and Coach saw how hard I worked off of that, I would get a shot that way.”
When she returned, she was still an athlete without a position. Her brother Darrin kept telling her all she needed was one shot, so Laughlin asked if she could play some outfield. She got in 11 games in 2009, seven in 2010, with only one start each season.
“I always had a lot of confidence in myself,” Laughlin said. “Last year when we moved to first base, honestly that was the one I was like, ‘I’m not going to play.’ I figured, ‘This is just another spot to put Shannon.’ ”
Linder planned to have Laughlin split the job the first weekend of the season, but Laughlin was so productive in her at-bats she virtually said, “I’m the one, you’ve got to play me.”
Since then, Linder said Laughlin has also asserted herself as a vocal leader who isn’t afraid to tell a teammate she’s not doing her job. Laughlin said growing up with brothers Darrin, 29, and Doug, 27, helped her to develop that personality.
“There were a lot of fights, yeah,” she said of her brothers. “I used to be a hot-head, so I think I’ve calmed down a lot.
“I’ve always been brought up, sort of a put-up or shut-up type of thing. I haven’t been one to sit there and whine and dwell or make excuses, so I don’t really accept them, I guess.”
That personality might serve her well as a teacher. Graduated and certified for grades seven through 12, Laughlin said she wants to work at a detention center or correctional facility. She might move to North Carolina, where an aunt and a former Kent State trainer live.
“I think I do well with more challenging youth, the ones who aren’t expected to do well or don’t want to do well,” she said. “I like the fact after I’m finished working with those students I actually feel like I did something.
“I was one of them in a way. I didn’t make the best decisions as a kid. I got in trouble more than I should have. I didn’t surround myself with the best people. A lot of them come from broken homes. My parents were divorced and my dad got remarried. We haven’t always gotten along and I have stepsisters I don’t get along with. I think I connect with those kids more.”
She marvels at the next challenge Laughlin wants to take on, but Linder said watching Laughlin succeed is “so gratifying.”
“That’s one of the reasons I enjoy coaching, to see these kinds of stories where a kid walks on and pays their dues and puts the team first and keeps at it just for the love of the game,” Linder said.
Allen shares that sentiment.
“The determination she had, this is something she did on her own and I can’t tell you how proud I am of her,” Allen said. “This is a perfect example of perseverance paying off.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.