If Heather Tarr was the type to spook easily or betray much anxiety, you’d have seen it by now.
The head coach of the Washington softball team has a complicated mission before the 2019 season begins, and that’s guiding the Huskies into a fresh phase after last season’s senior-dominated team made a run to the doorstep of an NCAA title. Washington fell short to Florida State, leaving Tarr to start deciphering a plan to confront six critical vacancies in the lineup.
With 584 career victories, a 2009 NCAA title in her pocket and back-to-back 50-win seasons as a fresh memory, Tarr could be excused for exuding impatience. However, signs of drama are hard to see as Washington prepares for a double-dose of the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge, playing in both Session 1 (Feb. 7-10) and Session 2 (Feb. 14-17) to start the season.
“It’s a completely new group; we’re recreating a new group of women learning Husky softball … still looking for the accomplishments of last year, but it’s a completely different team,” said Tarr, whose team is a consensus top-five program in preseason polls. “We get to figure out this group’s identity.
“The people we can attract to the school … it’s not for everybody. You have to be a part of everything, you can’t just be an athlete. We get the right kids, and that’s the fun challenge, finding the right ones. For all the history and traditions ... I like to think, no one would ever leave here.”
Last year’s team spent multiple weeks ranked No. 1 and was churning through the schedule before suddenly dropping six straight games late in the Pac-12 slate, three to Oregon and three to UCLA. After shaking off any doubt, the Huskies won eight straight to face off with Florida State in the championship series, but two startling losses ended the run – a solo home run surrendered in the sixth inning of a 1-0 loss in Game 1, and a 3-0 first inning lead given up in Game 2.
Tarr and the Huskies aren’t inclined to see all that as distressing ups-and-downs, but more as experiences that made the year unique and special.
“The way we saw it, we went through a season, but we were never scared or worried. We were hoping to let whatever pass, and get to the World Series so we could do what we wanted to do,” Tarr said. “We felt we did everything we could; we just didn’t get to walk away to a parade and a welcome home like we did in 2009. Other than that, we wished our seniors good luck, and we will miss those six … the end of that era was sad, more than anything.”
“We didn’t see it as high and lows. It showed our group that we know how to get through tough times; we did go through a losing streak, but we fought back and went to regionals … fighting for each other is what it’s all about,” said junior Sis Bates, who hit .389, had a .471 OBP and scored 53 runs last year, the best figures on a stacked roster. “It’s cool to see; we didn’t have as many newcomers last year, but we have nine this year. It’s a different dynamic, but I love it. Learning to bond, even outside of softball, is the most import aspect, to grow together outside of the game. When you have that love and compassion for each other, you’ll compete like there’s no tomorrow. As an upperclassman, we’ve never seen it this way.”
While there’s no denying the whole reset/review/rework aspect to the batting order and in the field, Washington has proven ability in the pitching circle with senior Taran Alvelo (23 wins in 2018, 1.30 ERA, 242 strikeouts in 188 innings) and sophomore Gabbie Plain (22 wins, 1.01 ERA, 181 strikeouts in 166 innings). After missing 2018 with an injury, catcher Morganne Flores is also back – she hit .344 with 13 homers and 74 RBI as a sophomore.
“You work hard to get the right people in the program at the right time. Timing is so much of it,” Tarr said. “You lose your ace – what are you going to do? Sometimes you get stuck with a 10 of spades. We have some aces in our hand, but we have a lot of room to grow. On paper, we have pitching, and that feels good.”
“It’s nice to play behind them, and they are such competitors. And now we have some lefties (freshman Mac Schulz and DePaul transfer Pat Moore) to go with our power righties, and there’s a great dynamic in the circle,” Bates added.
Bates is well on her way to securing one of the most notable careers in UW history, having already earned spots on the USA Women’s National and Junior National team. As determined to affect the game with her glove as her bat, Bates is an obvious source of vision and leadership for a team that may need a few games to totally find its footing.
The Huskies will take on North Carolina, Notre Dame, Duke, Liberty and Baylor in Session 1, with Mississippi State, Arkansas, UCF and North Dakota State waiting in Session 2.
“Naturally, I think about my effort – how you do anything is how you do everything. We’re showing newcomers how we do things at the University of Washington,” Bates said. “I don’t know if I’ve been waiting for this moment, but we have younger girls who we are ready to take under our wing. Our expectation is to win the last game at the College World Series, and that will never change here.”
“It’s her going from being a piece, to actually bringing players along with her. There will be no waiting until her senior year to do that,” Tarr added. “She’s a leader by her performance and energy. She’s one of the best we’ve ever had, and she’s getting better.”
NOTES: Tarr said the two-week span in Mexico isn’t as daunting as it might sound. First off, the Huskies took a trip to Australia in the offseason, playing solid competition in the home country of pitcher Gabbie Plain. Secondly, the first few weeks of every season are spent away from Seattle, in deference to the weather, and by sticking around in Puerto Vallarta, it minimized disruption to training and schoolwork. Players are obligated to work out arrangements with professors before the trip, and Tarr said it’s a key moment in developing maturity and problem-solving for the players. Lastly, Tarr said when Washington was at Puerto Vallarta in 2017, they didn’t get a chance to soak in the moment, so the extra time will allow for a more well-rounded experience … Looking ahead, Washington received a National Letter of Intent on November 2018 from the nation's No. 1 high school prospect, Kelley Lynch, who has dominated as a pitcher and hitter in Georgia in recent years.