By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Three years later, it’s still as fresh in her mind as if it just happened yesterday.
Baylor senior second baseman Ari Hawkins was front and center during the middle of the greatest comeback in the history of the Women’s College World Series.
A freshman on Baylor’s 2014 World Series team, Hawkins talked about how the seniors gathered the team together before the bottom of the sixth inning with the Lady Bears trailing Kentucky, 7-0, in an elimination game and said, “This is not going to be our last game.”
“That put the scare in me,” she said. “I just took that to heart, and I was not going to go out losing.”
Hawkins got the unfathomable comeback started with a leadoff bunt single in a three-run sixth, led off the four-run seventh with a no-doubt homer to left and then brought home Kaitlyn Thumann with the winning run in the eighth when she laid down a sacrifice bunt and the catcher threw it away as Baylor pulled off the 8-7 miracle.
“Still to this day, I don’t know how we did it,” Hawkins said. “But, I believed. I believed so hard. . . . I was on deck, pacing back and forth, like we were going to win it, we’re going to get this in, one hit at a time, praying for people. It was just crazy.”
Hawkins would love nothing better than to finish her career the way it started and take 15th-seeded Baylor (43-12) back to the World Series in Oklahoma City. The Lady Bears are the top seeds in the Waco Regional and will face fourth-seeded Kent State (32-26) at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Getterman Stadium.
After getting shipped off to Lafayette, La., and Eugene, Ore., the last two seasons, Baylor is hosting a regional for the second time in Hawkins’ four-year career and the fourth time overall.
“It’s overwhelmingly exciting,” coach Glenn Moore said. “To be able to stay at home, sleep in our beds, all those good things are ours now. And we get to play in what we still believe is the best stadium in the country. To bring other teams here to see what we have, to show it off and to be able to play in front of our fans in Central Texas is a big deal.”
Part of that crowd will be Hawkins’ mother and father, who moved to Midlothian, Texas, the summer before her freshman year. That was the main reason why Ari even ended up in Waco.
A three-time Valley Oak League MVP at Kimball High School in Tracy, Calif., where she hit .607, .593 and .576 her last three seasons, Hawkins had given the University of Virginia a verbal commitment when she was a sophomore and even signed a national letter of intent.
But, when her family moved from California to Texas, “we found a loophole, I got out of it, and I was able to be open on the market for three weeks before school started.”
The market wasn’t open for long, though. Hawkins made a quick one-day visit to Waco and signed with the Lady Bears, joining a freshman class that included first-team all-region and All-Big 12 third baseman Lindsey Cargill.
“The Christian atmosphere really caught my attention. That’s really a big thing with my family,” she said. “And just the overall attention, I guess you would say, as far as softball. They’ve been a top team for however many years. It was just something that me and my family thought was right for me.”
With Jordan Strickland entrenched at shortstop, Hawkins made a sometimes-shaky transition to second base, making a career-high 12 errors.
“They always say it’s interchangeable between short and second,” she said. “But honestly, to me, it felt like a completely different world. The ball comes off the bat differently, you react to lefties differently. I had to figure out if I could stick with (throwing overhand) or learn how to throw sidearm. It was a problem at the beginning. It was just an adjustment period, it took a while, probably the whole season.”
It didn’t affect her at the plate, though. Hawkins had the World Series team’s second-best batting average at .365 and improved to a team-leading .396 the next year, when she was named first-team All-Big 12 and second-team all-region.
Last year was the anomaly in what has otherwise been a phenomenal hitting career – she ranks eighth all-time with a career .334 batting average. Coming off two offseason surgeries and dealing with injuries all year, she hit just .242 as a junior with a career-high five homers and 23 RBI.
“If I had to point to one thing, I’d probably say it was the injuries with her,” Moore said. “Her body is about 10 years older than her age. That’s affected her when her back’s not feeling well, and I know last year that was the case quite often. It affects your swing, and you back off of reps in the cage and in practice a little bit. And then it kind of snowballs. And you’re not having the confidence she needs to be the good hitter she is this year.”
While Hawkins says her senior season has “not been the prettiest,” she’s still hitting .310 with nine, doubles, four homers and a career-high 28 RBI to nab second-team All-Big 12 and third-team all-region honors.
“Ari is such a great athlete,” Cargill said. “She can do everything. She can bunt, she can hit, she can field ground balls. Everyone looks up to her as a leader. She’s going to be in that leadership role this weekend. She’ll be able to get the ball in play and lead this team to a victory.”
One of three players who graduated last weekend, Hawkins plans to stick around for at least another semester to return the favor and cheer on her boyfriend, Ishmail Wainright, who’s become a regular at Getterman Stadium. Wainright finished a four-year basketball career and is transitioning to playing tight end next fall for the Baylor football team.
“I’ve always loved basketball and football. Just coming to Texas, it’s a lot bigger deal here,” Hawkins said. “I’ve always been a fan. I guess I’m an even bigger fan now.”
Second-seeded James Madison (50-6) faces third-seeded Oregon State (28-25) in the other first-round game at 4 p.m. Friday. Games in the double-elimination tournament are scheduled for 1, 3:30 and 6 p.m. Saturday, with the first championship game at 1 p.m. Sunday and the if-necessary game to follow at 3:30.
All-session reserved tickets are $35, with single-day, general admission tickets available for $10 for adults, $7 for youth ages 18 and younger and free for Baylor students with an ID.
The Waco Regional is paired with second-seeded Arizona for a potential Super Regional matchup in Tucson.