Carefree Huskies turn pressure of being defending softball champs into fun-filled journey
Washington softball team is enjoying the trip as it attempts to win another NCAA title.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The coach of the nation's best college softball team reads her lineup wearing Harry Potter glasses. They're plastic 3-D specs with the lenses removed, and Heather Tarr also speaks in a fake British accent. The players giggle and dub her "Heather Potter."
Suffice to say, it has been a magical season.
It has been an amusing one, too, which contradicts the preseason notion that the University of Washington would be too burdened from winning a national championship last year and carrying expectations to do it again in 2010. It's impossible to feel pressure when you're having this much fun.
The same team that finished the regular season 45-6 and never relinquished its No. 1 ranking blares music during practice, uses footballs sometimes to get its arms loose and often dances or plays tag to warm up.
The same team that boasts the most dominant pitcher in the college game and supports her with exquisite defense refers to itself as "weird" and "spontaneous" and "goofy."
The same team that features a roster full of extroverted alpha females compares itself to sled dogs — OK, Sled Dawgs — because the players are "fighting, trying to get to a point in the race at the end where we can finish it and win it," Tarr said.
"You have to keep 'em healthy and hungry — like Lance Mackey," Tarr added, referring to the four-time Iditarod champion.
The Huskies are as multifaceted as their coach's motivational methods. Harry Potter frames. Sled Dawgs. You never know what Tarr has in her repertoire.
Don't mistake carefree for careless, however. The Huskies are a detail-oriented machine with no real weakness outside of the occasional hitting slump. They're focused. They're prepared. And as the NCAA tournament begins this week, they're eager to put all they have into another championship run.
They just won't let the pressure get to them. They're enjoying the journey way too much.
"I've never had so much fun and been so good at the same time," freshman first baseman Melanie "Hooch" Fagaly said.
Grab your 3-D glasses, pop out the lenses, and look at why the Huskies are having such a good time.
The audacity of fun
Freshman catcher Shawna Wright walked to the pitcher's circle to meet with a peeved Danielle Lawrie. UCLA was hitting the reigning national player of the year hard, and it was on Wright to calm her.
"Stop throwing the ball down the middle of the plate," Wright told Lawrie, slipping in a curse word for extra emphasis.
It was a huge moment early in the Pac-10 conference season. How would Lawrie react to such a pointed directive from a freshman? Before the season, many had wondered how the pitcher would handle the departure of catcher Alicia Blake, Lawrie's rock. Things had gone well with the Lawrie/Wright battery, but the freshman hadn't challenged the ace like this before.
Lawrie slapped her glove, then she slapped Wright on the back.
"All right, that's what I'm talkin' about," Lawrie declared. "That's what I need to hear."
This new pairing has been fruitful. The coaches trusted Blake enough to let her call games, and now Lawrie and Wright usually figure out pitches together. Lawrie has continued to thrive under a new catcher, and Wright also brings a rocket arm and a power-hitting bat to the table.
"I haven't been intimidated at all," Wright said. "Catching Danielle has been great."
Especially when the all-American doesn't throw pitches down the middle.
Fun finding flaws
What is Tarr worrying about the most right now? Well, that her team hasn't lost enough.
Nice problem, huh?
"Are we learning the lessons that we need to learn, even though we've had success?" Tarr wondered. "Is the game going to teach us enough so that we have those experiences in our bag of tricks?"
The Huskies were 41-10 as they began their championship run last season. They're four games better than that pace this season. They were an incredible 17-4 in the Pac-10, the toughest softball conference in the nation. Lawrie has lost just twice.
They've had tough losses. Utah State wasn't pretty. It was rough losing to UCLA after a runner's interference call with the bases loaded ended the game. Still, the Huskies can recite their losses in one breath: DePaul, Utah State, UCLA, Oregon, California and Arizona State.
"It's like a small scar in my heart," sophomore outfielder Kimi Pohlman said, sighing over the memory of those defeats.
There were lessons learned in defeat.
"Every time we lose, we know that it's our bad," sophomore outfielder Niki Williams said. "We haven't really lost. We just mentally did not show up. We can use that as motivation."
Fun being hunted
The Huskies still like to consider themselves an underdog program. They don't play in perpetual warm weather. In the past, UCLA and Arizona have overshadowed them in the Pac-10. So being the consensus No. 1 team all season has been different.
"We knew going into this year we had a big target on our backs," junior shortstop Jenn Salling said. "I don't think we could've handled it better. We love the fact that people are out to get us. We're not afraid of it."
The Huskies were really in danger of losing that top spot only once this season. Last month, they hosted a three-game series against then-No. 2 Arizona. Proving that it enjoys being hunted, Washington swept the Wildcats that weekend, outscoring them 18-4.
The Huskies haven't lost consecutive games all season. They've avenged their six losses by winning the ensuing games by a combined score of 30-6.
"I don't think anybody is staying up at night, thinking how cool we are because we're the No. 1 team in the nation," Pohlman said. "We have something else in mind."
Fun at the finish?
Salling is an intense competitor who rarely smiles on the field. So it figures she'd be the best person to explain where the Huskies go from here.
"We're not putting on rose-colored glasses, saying, 'We're defending national champions, No. 1, everything is going to be perfect,' " she said. "We're going after it. We're not expecting a championship to come to us."
From the beginning, Tarr has been preaching that sermon. She doesn't believe in the word "repeat." The Huskies lost seven seniors off the 2009 title team. This is a new squad with a different skill set and personality. The past doesn't burden the Huskies because it's just that — the past. They only use it as proof that they know the route to bliss.
It would be an insult to last year's team to say the 2010 Huskies are already better. This tournament will decide that. But these ladies have a chance to be on that level. They're more than Team Danielle. They're quite a collection of talent: Pohlman's speed, Salling's discipline, third baseman Morgan Stuart's glove, Williams' hitting, Wright's power, Amanda Fleischman's versatility, Alyson McWherter's defense. And so much more. And the mind-set to match.
"Ever since we won last year, we've understood that we don't want to be a team that wins a championship," senior outfielder Bailey Stenson said. "We want to be a championship team."
OK, Sled Dawgs. There's the finish line. Have fun.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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