By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. -- As Victoria Draper prepares to play her final NCAA Regional in an Auburn uniform, she's reminded of a small piece of advice her mom always told her.
"Leave a place better than you found it."
That's stuck with Draper throughout her senior season. It hasn't all exactly gone according to plan with a new coach, a difficult transition period and what has been an up-and-down season for this Auburn softball team. But the reality is that the Tigers are now in the NCAA Tournament, which means anything can happen.
For Draper, though, this tournament has a different feel because it's her last one. This will be the final games that she takes the field with her Auburn teammates.
"I definitely want to win," Draper said. "But, I've told my teammates this before -- my love for them and our bond together means way more to me than just wins and losses. Us ending on a high note of team chemistry means more than wins and losses to me.
"Obviously I want to win the national championship, but with winning a national championship, you usually have to have the best team chemistry anyway. So when I leave here, I'd love it if (my teammates) all think I contributed to each one of them and had an impact on each one of them as much as they had an impact on me."
It's hard to miss Draper on the field. She describes herself as the "high-energy, fast, blonde girl that runs around everywhere," and that's a pretty accurate description. This season, she shattered the school record for stolen bases with 37 and counting. She's also hitting a team-best .387 and ranks No. 6 all-time in program history with a .352 career average.
If you ask first-year Auburn coach Mickey Dean, he'll tell you that he's never seen a kid more excited on game day than Draper.
"Never in all my years of coaching," Dean said. "On game day, she's like when my kid was 12 years old playing the game. And that's just awesome because that brings a lot of energy and excitement to it. She makes it fun. And I think sometimes we lose focus of that and how important it is to have fun."
That energy rubs off on her teammates, too. When Draper missed time this season due to a hand injury, there was a noticeable difference in the locker room.
Draper might still be that same happy, carefree player she was when she first arrived at Auburn from Moulton, Alabama in 2014. But she's grown up during her time on the Plains. She's more mature now. There have been injuries, most notably the fractured shins that forced her to redshirt her first year on campus. There was the coaching change that took place last offseason.
And yet, through all the adversity, Draper has overcome it. She's stronger for it.
"I wouldn't change any of it," she said. "I think it's molded the three of us (seniors) into who we are. It's been a roller coaster, but it's been a fun roller coaster. You build character through adversity. We're not necessarily experts, but we've had a lot of it."
What's next for Draper when this season comes to an end? She's currently in the MBA program at Auburn and is scheduled to graduate in December. She's already accepted a job with KPMG, a business management consulting firm in Atlanta where she interned last summer, and plans to begin working there in January 2019.
However, her softball career might not be over quite yet.
Last month, Draper was taken 19th overall in the 2018 National Pro Fastpitch Draft by the Beijing Eagles, a new team out of China that will be based in Daytona, Florida this summer.
Draper received the news the same night she was co-hosting the AUSPYs, and at first, she thought it was somebody pulling a prank on her. She was not expecting to get drafted, and especially not by a team in Beijing.
"It's definitely an honor," Draper said. "I wasn't expecting that at all. I didn't think that was an option for me. I love the game of softball and I try to be a student of the game of softball, and to have to the opportunity to continue that, to continue at least learning about the game, is exciting. Whether I go and play or not, the opportunity is still there."
The focus right now isn't on professional softball or her summer internship through the MBA program. It's on Auburn softball, the upcoming Tallahassee Regional and finishing the season strong with her teammates.
There's still one last chapter that Draper has to write.
"I hope that people know that I gave my best effort every single day," she said. "Regardless of if we made every play or won every game, I gave my hardest to this team."
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: