Lauren Kehlenbrink is back where she is happiest – on the softball field.
Kehlenbrink, a Parkway South junior, missed her sophomore season after having surgery on her shoulder.
“Yeah, I’m happy to be back playing,” said Kehlenbrink, who is a catcher. “It was a long recovery. It took a while, about 10 months to get back into everything. Now I’m back and at full strength. It feels really good, too.”
Patriots coach Marvin Medcalf certainly is glad to have Kehlenbrink back with his squad. She started for him as a freshman. He calls her a rare talent.
“She is the finest catcher I have worked with both in my 10 years coaching at Eureka High and in my six years coaching at Parkway South, and in my 15 years of coaching summer softball,” Medcalf said. “She has the strongest arm and pop time to second base and shuts down most teams from even attempting to steal when they see her warm up. She frames pitches and has the best glove reaction and defensive skills that I have ever seen.”
She made her presence felt as a freshman when she won the job and started every game. Kehlenbrink helped the Patriots achieve a 21-9 record that season.
“It was awesome. It was great to play on the varsity as a freshman,” Kehlenbrink said. “All of the girls were very welcoming to me. I was a little nervous. Their reaction to me making varsity as a freshman meant a lot. They helped me on things I needed to work on. I think it helped me be a leader for others coming into varsity now.”
Kehlenbrink showed she belonged on the varsity. She hit .292 with four doubles, three triples and a home run. She drove in 21 runs. Behind the plate, Kehlenbrink had just one passed ball.
“She started every game as a freshman and had a great relationship with our senior pitcher [Kaylie Wurdack],” Medcalf said. “Our winning season that year was in no small part a great combination between the pitcher and catcher.”
Looking forward to her sophomore season, Kehlenbrink experienced a setback. While attending a softball camp in July 2016 at Oklahoma, Kehlenbrink made routine throws to second base.
“On one of the throws, I felt something pop in my shoulder,” Kehlenbrink said. “I lost all my strength. It constantly hurt.”
The diagnosis was a torn labrum. There two were options: physical therapy or surgery. After a couple of consultations, it was decided that Kehlenbrink would have the surgery.
“I had surgery on Aug. 2  to fix it and repair it,” Kehlenbrink said. “I had no clue what a labrum was. Apparently, it’s connected to the bicep, which helps the rotator cuff move. It can’t heal on its own. There’s not enough blood flowing into the shoulder to repair it. After I had a second opinion, we found surgery was the best way to go. So that’s what we did.”
After surgery came rehab. That was not a fun experience, Kehlenbrink said.
“Rehab was long. At the start, it was boring,” Kehlenbrink said. “I was doing things that were really easy and then some days it would be super hard like when I came out of the sling. I was surprised at how much strength I lost.
“It was stressful. Somedays I was really anxious to start throwing and be back in the game.”
But Kehlenbrink did not abandon her team or teammates.
“It was rough seeing girls playing and seeing the team struggle,” Kehlenbrink said. “I felt I could help them and was tough to watch. I wanted to be a part of everything that was going on. I attended every practice and every game. I was cheering them on.”
Medcalf liked having her around the team. It was good for and it was good for him.
“Even when she wasn’t playing last year it was literally like having another coach on the bench because her insight of the game is well beyond her years,” Medcalf said.
Her hard work with rehab paid off. Medcalf noticed.
“She worked all winter and is actually stronger than ever in every aspect of the game. I knew she would be back stronger than ever because I knew in her freshman year that her work ethic would not allow for anything else,” Medcalf said. “She plays at a very high level in the summer and sometimes it is hard for hitters to adjust to sometimes slower high school pitching, but she has worked very hard going into the season and has adjusted to every pitcher we have faced so far this year.”
Kehlenbrink plays in the summer with the Illinois Force, a traveling team.
The squad starts playing the last weekend of May. The season goes until last weekend of July.
“I like it. It’s a lot of softball but it’s fun,” Kehlenbrink said. “It’s definitely worth it.”
She has been a catcher since she was 9. It came about because of a need on the team.
“I was playing tee-ball with my dad’s [Rob] team,” Kehlenbrink said. “The starting catcher wasn’t there for a game and I thought ‘why not.’ I ended up doing well and I liked it a lot. I ended up catching after that.
“I like being in charge of the game. I’m able to see everything. I involved in every play. I like that part of it. Being able to interact with the pitchers is fun. I think it’s the best position honestly.”
Medcalf said he never has to worry about Kehlenbrink.
“Lauren always gives 100 percent both in practice and games. She has the type of personality where her work ethic and positive influence on the rest of the team elevates the entire squad and players still have a great relationship with her,” Medcalf said. “She has started with a hot bat and actually hit two more home runs that are not in the book as they were played with no fences at Manchester and the outfielder literally played her 250 feet deep. Softball fences are typically 190 to 200 feet.
“She brings the pitching staff to a higher level as we let her call all the games and no coach could do it any better or frankly as well.”
Kehlenbrink wants to do better.
“I’m catching well. My hitting is still coming around,” Kehlenbrink said. “Adjusting to the pitching is something I have to work on.”
Her leadership skills are a huge asset as well.
“She is a great role model and team leader while maintaining a positive demeanor with other players and they all get along great,” Medcalf said. “I am thrilled to have her in the program and while we always have strong players in the program, there will never be another Lauren Kehlenbrink in my coaching career. Her family is great – great folks and her sister Paige, a freshman for us, is also on varsity and is another strong up-and-comer for us.”
While he will have her for another season, Medcalf said Kehlenbrink will play somewhere in college.
“She is definitely a Division 1 recruit,” Medcalf said. “She has two Missouri schools and Western Kentucky looking closely at her. She has not committed at this point but she surely will in the near future.”