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Labor gains: Oakland softball coach's daughter arrives just in time for NCAAs


There was a brief moment Saturday when a very-pregnant Oakland softball coach Lauren Karn was considering driving to Youngstown, Ohio, to watch her team play for a Horizon League championship.

Fortunately for her, league officials had moved the game up, anticipating bad weather later in the day. That convinced Karn to stay home in Clarkston — and, perhaps, kept her from delivering on I-75.

Karn went into labor Saturday night, and at 12:30 a.m. Sunday delivered Sophie, who was 8 pounds, 1 ounce. On the same day Oakland would be announced as an NCAA Tournament participant for the first time since 2015, Sophie announced herself to the world.

Sophie came two days early — allowing Karn, potentially, to return to the dugout Friday, when the Golden Grizzlies host Northwestern in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The team flew to Chicagoland on Wednesday; Karn was in the car with Sophie and her other child, Mickey (as in Mickey Mantle), on Thursday morning.

"I cannot wait," Karn said. "I'm such a fan of watching my team play softball, I thoroughly enjoy watching them compete in person, that I just can't wait to be able to watch them on the field again, and not on video.

"Just to be able to have those coaching conversations with them and talk to them about strategies and what they're thinking when they're up to bat and calling pitches, I've missed that the last couple weeks."

Karn, 36, is in her fifth year as head coach at Oakland, with the Golden Grizzlies making the NCAAs for the first time on her watch. Things have been trending in that direction, but the season was cut short in 2020 because of the pandemic, and Oakland finished second in the Horizon League tournament a year ago. This year, they beat Green Bay, 2-0, in the Horizon League opener, then Northern Kentucky, 3-1, and finally Robert Morris, 5-4, in the championship game to clinch their spot.

Oakland (26-15) is in the NCAA regional with No. 9 Northwestern (40-10), Notre Dame and McNeese State. Oakland and Northwestern play at 4:30 Friday.

Assistant coach Jenna Modic-Blythers has been the interim head coach in Karn's absence, but Karn hopes to be in the dugout, as long it's OK if she has to occasionally leave the dugout to check on, and feed, Sophie. 

Otherwise, Modic-Blythers will continue at the helm.

"I don't coach the bases anyway. Jenna has done that the last three years," Karn said. "I do manage the dugout and manage the lineup card. If I do have to step out of the dugout to feed Sophie or take care of her, Jenna will step in there. She's been doing it now for two weeks. But I need to clarify with the NCAA and the umpires if that would be OK. Otherwise, then Jenna will still manage."

Oakland is led by redshirt sophomore Sydney Campbell, who was named Horizon League pitcher of the year, and fellow first-team All-Horizon League players Madison Jones, a redshirt senior out of Romeo (.352, nine homers, 24 RBIs); Jessie Munson, a redshirt sophomore out of Harrison Township (.307 batting average) and Lauren Griffith, a redshirt junior (.313, 15 doubles, 25 RBIs).

The Golden Grizzlies won the regular-season championship by a half-game over Cleveland State, backing up their place as the No. 1 pick in the preseason poll.

Which begs the question, are the Karns — her husband, Justin is head coach at Madonna University, and was at his NCAA Tournament games in Tennessee when Sophie came two days early — not good planners? Lauren laughed.

"We planned our first, and his birthday is May 29, and he came early," Lauren said. "We actually were talking about starting to try for a second — we only ever wanted two — and the week we decided, we thought that it would be best to wait one more year, we found out we were pregnant with her."

Lauren coached through a May 4 game against IUPUI, sitting out a final regular-season road series at Green Bay, as well as the Horizon League tournament.

She watched the league tournament from her couch in Clarkston, via a live stream — which beats live stats. It still was "honestly horrible," Karn admitted. She was helpless. To pass the time and calm her nerves, she texted her players during the games, knowing they wouldn't even see the texts until after the games.

After the team won the title, the players and coaches bused home to Rochester, where Karn met them behind the O'Rena on Saturday night to celebrate, mildly.

As the players dispersed, Karn started feeling something and told her training staff. Within hours, she was in the hospital, accompanied there by a neighbor, with Justin still in Tennessee. Within an hour of getting to the hospital, she had delivered, Justin joining on FaceTime for literally the final push.

It all happened so fast, a far cry from Mickey, who was a 12-hour-labor baby. Maybe it was the rush of Championship Day. Maybe it was because, well, Sophie wanted to see the NCAAs.

"I was hopeful she would come before the (Horizon League) tournament, so I could travel with her to that tournament," said Karn, whose Oakland team is joined in the NCAAs by Michigan (36-16), which opens with South Dakota State (40-11) in Orlando, Florida, at 11 a.m. Friday. "Now it's gonna be the NCAA Tournament, which I'm also very happy about."

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984