-- This is the time of year when most seniors look forward to walking across a commencement stage. The sooner someone hands them a diploma and a parent snaps photographic proof that they passed the right courses, the better.
Yet after four years of reading, writing, studying and sweating out exams along with the rest of her class at the University of Texas, Lindsey Stephens wants nothing to do with such traditions.
Forget walking. Her preferred pace for commencement weekend is a light jog with left turns at first, second and third bases.
"None of us want to walk," Stephens said of a five-player senior softball class. "Because if you're walking that means you're not playing in regionals."
Her performance this past week suggests that, like most other things she's been tasked with during her time in Austin, she aced the test.
Stephens has one more home game to play this week, as Texas closes out its schedule against Baylor (the Big 12 doesn't have a conference tournament), but she spent the final full week of her final regular season moving around the bases at a leisurely pace. Spanning a midweek win against North Texas and a weekend three-game sweep at Iowa State, she totaled four home runs, two doubles, seven RBIs, 11 runs scored and a healthy 1.571 slugging percentage.
"Even the games before, when we were at home [against Kansas the previous week], I felt really good," Stephens said. "I was seeing the ball well, I was making good contact. I knew if I got out, it was because I just missed it. ... So I've been feeling really good lately."
For her most recent efforts, she is espnW's national player of the week, the final honoree this season.
Sweeping the week propelled the Longhorns to No. 26 in the most recent RPI, a season high. That probably won't be enough to earn them a seed in the NCAA tournament and a potential regional at home, even with a win in the finale against Baylor, but it all but assures them a place as an at-large entry in the postseason and a trip to a regional site that will take precedence over commencement in Austin. Among the reasons that Texas will be a visitor many seeded teams would rather not host is that they will see as much of Stephens as the Longhorns can muster.
Stephens successfully managed one change in roles early at Texas when the former high school infielder transitioned to the outfield. As a home run to lead off the series at Iowa State showed, she mastered another with a move to the top spot in the batting order in late February.
In preparing for the new role with hitting coach Corrie Hill, Stephens listed all the things a leadoff hitter should do, such as make the pitcher throw all her pitches and work deep into counts. She prepared to adjust her mindset and sacrifice some aggressiveness for the good of the lineup.
Not so fast, Hill said. It is hard to pitch around the leadoff hitter. One of the goals in putting Stephens in the top spot was to maximize the number of pitches she saw to hit.
"I just go up there aggressive and, sure enough, more times than not, they're going to be there," Stephens said. "If not, then you get the walk. I've loved the first hole since I've been there."
Each of her four home runs in the Iowa State series came in the first three innings, including back-to-back innings in the second game of the series. And the more plate appearances the Longhorns can get for the second player in program history with 40 home runs and 40 doubles, the better their chances of extending the season.
That will be just fine with Stephens.
Her family already assured friends and extended relatives that, yes, she is graduating on time (not that anyone was worried about someone with shelves full of academic accolades), but no, they need not worry about navigating the organized chaos of Austin at commencement time.
She earned the right to walk across a stage next weekend. It's just that she would rather jog around the bases.