There was plenty of pressure on Lauren Cox coming into her senior season with the La Cañada High softball team.
It was the first time Cox would be the Spartans' primary pitcher and she was stepping into the role with a mountain of expectations facing her and the team. La Cañada entered the season atop the CIF Southern Section Division V poll, which made it the favorite to win the title for the second year in a row.
In order to do so, the Spartans would need a bounce-back season from Cox, who watched most of the 2011 championship run from the sidelines after a leg injury derailed her junior season and put Lauren O'Leary front and center in La Cañada's pitching staff.
"I think she was looking forward to it, I really do," said La Cañada Coach KC Mathews of Cox taking over as the Spartans ace. "Pitchers want the ball all the time. I have yet to run into a quality pitcher that doesn't want the ball in their hand and to be in the circle every inning of every game."
Cox said everything leading up to her high school finale served as motivation, not pressure.
"[Last year] was definitely extremely frustrating because [the injury] was in a really painful area and it made it tough to pitch," Cox said. "I was so tired and fed up with sitting on the bench and not being able to do anything. It kind of served as motivation toward the end."
It all pushed Cox and the Spartans to another wildly successful season in which they delivered on all the expectations set before them by winning the Rio Hondo League title for the fourth year in a row and a consecutive CIF crown with another victory over Beaumont, 7-3.
Day in and day out, La Cañada relied on Cox (23-3) in the circle, as she pitched 191 1/3 innings — all but 19 — and, according to Maxpreps, struck out the most batters in the CIF Southern Section and third most in the state with 321. La Cañada finished the season with a 26-4-1, 10-1-1 in league record.
"This year was definitely awesome," said Cox, who also batted .286 (eight for 28) with eight runs batted in and a homer. "I didn't necessarily expect to win [CIF]; obviously I had high hopes, but all the girls stepped up. …We lost a good portion of our team so it was one of those things you thought it would be a negative, but our team was so strong this year and everyone worked so much harder. Having won [CIF] and played in it, the feeling was absolutely incredible."
The awards keep coming in for Cox, who earned All-Rio Hondo League Most Valuable Pitcher, All-CIF Division V first-team and All-MaxPreps Medium Schools All-American second-team honors.
None of the awards surprised first-year Monrovia High Coach Dave Guzman.
"Lauren proved to be the best pitcher in the league and you went into it thinking she would be," Guzman said. "You knew La Cañada had the best pitcher in the league when you played them and she ended up being the best in CIF [Southern Section] Division V."
Now the University of San Diego-bound pitcher can add the 2012 All-Area Softball Player of the Year Award to her list of accolades after she was unanimously voted for the honor by the sportswriters and editors of the Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader, La Cañada Valley Sun and Pasadena Sun.
Cox created big expectations for herself as a sophomore, as she went 5-1 with six saves, a 0.35 earned-run average, 161 strikeouts and gave up just 29 hits and 16 walks in 80.1 innings. She did most of it in a closeout role, as O'Leary, who was a year older than Cox, usually started the first four innings with Cox finishing the last three.
"Lauren [Cox] was obviously a very capable pitcher, it just so happened so was Lauren O'Leary," Mathews said. "Growing up [Cox] always had the ball in her hand and for one of the first times had to share time with Lauren O'Leary as a sophomore. They both showed a lot of maturity and selflessness sharing the ball for what was best for the team."
The excitement surrounding Cox was put on hold for a year after Cox's junior season, in which she pitched just 3 2/3 innings, was all but scratched with a leg injury.
It came in the midst of the Spartans' first championship win since 1995, and feeling detached from it was tough for Cox, who fell in love with pitching for the constant involvement.
"I really like that you're engaged in every single play," Cox said of pitching. "For me, I work really hard with things and I am really tough on myself. With pitchers, you either succeed or you fail, and I always want to succeed — that's why I love pitching."
Cox was determined to return to her same level of play after the injury and did just that. She finished the season with a 0.62 ERA, 18 shutouts (three in the playoffs) and six no-hitters. She also rose to the occasion in the postseason, as she gave up just four runs and 12 hits with 67 strikeouts through 35 innings in the playoffs.
Her finest performance of the postseason came against Mary Star of the Sea in the quarterfinals when she struck out 20 batters in the 7-0 La Cañada victory.
The hard, rise-ball throwing righty was simply a nightmare for opposing coaches to game plan against.
"She has a couple pitches she likes to go to and you try to prepare for those," Guzman said, "but bottom line is it's her against the batter in the box and she's usually winning those battles."
Guzman's Wildcats were shut out all three times against the Spartans. It was the two teams' first meeting, which ended in a 0-0 tie and was called because of darkness after 14 innings, that showed Guzman what it is that makes Cox special.
"Lauren gets stronger as the game goes on," said Guzman, who saw Cox strike out 23 batters, walk two and give up four hits in the game. "She's the type of pitcher that gets better each inning and that's what makes it difficult. She keeps stepping up her game and she has the pitches to back it up."
When Mathews was asked what it is that makes Cox special, he raved about her work ethic.
"When you mix hard work with talent you get special," Mathews said. "That's what you got with her. There's a lot of girls that are 5-foot-10 and can't throw a ball hard like Lauren does. There aren't girls who throw as hard as Lauren does and are as dedicated to working on their pitches everyday, that's what makes her next to unhittable.
"They always say the same thing about the best, 'They're the first one in and the last one out.' Lauren would leave practice and go to a pitching lesson."
Mathews said it was Cox's junior season that reinforced just how hard of a worker she is. She would attend the team's daily practices and go to physical therapy sessions multiple times a week all in preparation for the next season.
"I said I wasn't going to let [the injury] affect me or use it as an excuse for losing," Cox said. "I don't like excuses for losing."