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Heather Tarr: More than a head coach to the Huskies

Posted by: on Mar 22, 2012 | No Comments

Heather Tarr is in her eighth year as head coach.

When asked for the best advice Washington softball coach Heather Tarr had given Kimi Pohlman, the senior outfielder exhaled loudly, as if it would take a while to think about her response. But her answer came out just as quickly as the breath of air.

“Be the best you can be, in all aspects of your life.”

Always prepared with motivational mottos, phrases and advice, Tarr is in her eighth year as the head coach of UW softball. In 2009, Tarr led Washington to its first national championship.

Her infectious smile illuminates her face under her Washington visor, whether she’s peering out from the dugout during a game or sitting on a bucket of balls behind home plate during a practice. With her hair pulled back into a thick ponytail and dressed in black Nike pants and a jacket, Tarr will get hands-on with her players in practice, hitting balls to them during fielding practice or taking the time to go over techniques with individuals. But Tarr’s focus is to offer much more to her players and the program than just being the head softball coach.

“Not just settling for being a great softball player, you know, really being well-rounded and trying to win each aspect of your life,” Pohlman said, explaining Tarr’s advice. “Whether it’s being a great friend, being a great person, being a great daughter, being a great student, being a great competitor, all that, just being the best you can be in everything.”

Tarr has experience with Husky softball from nearly every position, and then some. This allows her to relate with her players and staff. She places equal importance on her roles outside of softball.

As a daughter, as a sister

Tarr (back row, far right) grew up with a close family.

“I had my fun dressing her for the first three and a half years,” Tarr’s mother, Ardee, recalled. After that, hand-me-downs from her brother’s closet were preferred over dresses. Tarr had a full head of white blonde hair that slowly grew darker with age. It was typically worn in some form of ponytail or braid that her mom would help her style. No matter what clothes adorned her body or how her hair was fashioned, Tarr always wore a great big smile paired with her great, big dimples.

Tarr comes from a close family. She grew up in Redmond where her father owned a car lot and her mother, a former elementary school teacher, stayed at home to raise her three children.

Her father, Vic, described her as a good kid, good athlete and willing helper. “She was what most fathers and mothers would hope for,” he said with a chuckle.

While her parents said she has always been a leader, Tarr believes that leaders are not born, but developed.

“I think I was always a pretty good follower to good leaders,” Tarr said.

From watching good leaders, she learned how to be one.

One leader pushed her, literally. She watched as her brother, Josh, who was only a year older than her, played baseball. At that time, the slow-pitch softball offered to girls didn’t appeal to Tarr, so she followed her brother and played baseball.

Tarr as a youngster.

Tarr says modeling after Josh gave her a lot of confidence. From the physical roughhousing between siblings, Tarr said nobody could treat her any tougher. Her mom said, with Josh, Tarr learned to stick up for herself.

“He taught her how to do a whole bunch of things, mostly good,” Ardee recalled about the close relationship between Tarr and her older brother.

Though Josh and her parents currently live in Wenatchee, Tarr’s family is still very involved with her team. Her parents do their best to make it to every game on the road and at home, even though home is now a two-and-a-half hour commute.

That commute proved dangerous during a fall ball season in 2007. The Husky softball team played in New York, and Tarr’s parents made the trip.

Their return flight arrived in Seattle late at night, and they still had to drive east to Wenatchee. Travelling through Blewett Pass around midnight, their car hit black ice in the rain and rolled off the road, leaving them upside-down in their vehicle. They were lucky to come out of the accident without any major injuries, and the next person who drove by stopped to help.

Back then, Tarr lived in a one-bedroom loft condo, but after the scary event, she said “screw that” and decided to buy a big house so that her parents could always stay with her. Her younger brother, Zac, also lives with her, her cat Huck and her husband J.T. D’Amico.

As an athlete, as a student

A 12-year-old, prepubescent kid stands in a green and white uniform, clutching a baseball bat. Light brown bangs and a cropped-short haircut creep out from under a green baseball hat and frame a big smile.

“You couldn’t really tell if she was a boy or a girl other than the dimples and that she was pretty,” her father recalls of her Little League All-Star photo.

Tarr was a strong athlete that held her own against the boys. At age 12, in the Little League city championship, the opposing pitcher intentionally brought in a run by walking the batter in front of her (who happened to be Tarr’s close friend and future brother-in-law, Jeff D’Amico) because he wanted to pitch to “the girl.”

Tarr (center) grew up playing with the boys.

“The girl” proceeded to hit a grand slam.

Tarr was then selected to play on the baseball All-Star team. The team, coached by Tom D’Amico (the father of her future husband J.T.), won the district championship and then captured the Washington State Tournament. They represented Washington at the Western Region Tournament in California, where Tarr broke her hand while at bat. Tarr still has the plastered cast full of autographs, including J.T.’s name.

In high school, Tarr made the transition from playing baseball to fastpitch softball.

“The guys starting growing a little bit too big and they started growing Adam’s apples and I was not having that,” Tarr said.

At Redmond High School, she was recognized as a team captain on her varsity sports teams and also excelled in varsity basketball and volleyball. In 1993 her Kirkland Little League softball team won the Big League Softball World Series. The Seattle Times reported that Tarr led the team in hitting with a .500 average.

As a freshman at Washington in 1994, Tarr walked onto the UW softball team in the program’s second year. Tarr was supposed to compete against another third baseman, but she got injured, so Tarr had the spot all fall and believed she would have it throughout the season.

In January, another freshman was brought in from southern California to battle for third base. “I had to deal with like, ‘All right, that was nice for fall, but here’s reality,’” Tarr rsaid.

The two were in a platoon until mid-March, when the other freshman won the spot for the rest of the season. Tarr remembers thinking she had everything and then nothing. From the best to the worst.

The next summer, Tarr was determined to win the spot. She worked at a batting cage and practiced every day, doing what she knew she had to in order to claim the position.

“Heather was the kind of kid who would always come out for extra work, the kid who wanted to get better,” former UW softball coach Teresa Wilson said.

For the rest of her college career, Tarr was the starter at third base.

In 1996 and 1997, Tarr played in the Women’s College World Series, where the Huskies placed second and third.

During her senior season in 1997, Tarr played third base alongside freshman shortstop Rosie Leutzinger. Leutzinger said playing with Tarr was hilarious. They had a bond. They would give each other little signals. They had signals to tell each other if the batter was swinging at nothing or if the ball was coming their way.

“As a freshman, playing shortstop in the Pac-10 was scary, and so she would always make me laugh and come over to say something to relax me,” Leutzinger said.

Tarr started as a walk-on and turned into one of the UW's all-time great third basemen.

Additionally in the summer of 1997, Tarr played for the Women’s Professional Fastpitch Softball League’s Tampa Bay Fire Stix.

These experiences allow Tarr to communicate better with her players because she has seen “from the dugout, from the bench, from the starting role, from the walk on, from getting a scholarship,” Tarr says. “So I’ve kind of been in every seat.”

“I’ve been a captain, I’ve been a freshman, I’ve had a great senior class to follow when I was younger, you know so all kinds of different roles,” Tarr added.

The obvious common ground she shares with her players is that she was a UW student, too.

Taylor Smith, a senior outfielder, said Tarr is always willing to spend extra time with her players, and not just with softball. Smith mentioned Tarr helps players study on the bus or gives tips on good classes to take during the season.

“She keeps a close eye on our academic progress and what we want to do when we’re done and steps that she can take to really help us out entering the real world,” Pohlman said of Tarr.

Tarr majored in geography at Washington and was recognized as a three-year member of the Pac-10 all-academic team. Because it took her a fifth year to receive her degree, she was able to spend her last year at the UW as an assistant coach.

As an assistant coach, as a teacher

“She’s definitely a lion; she’s got the huge hair,” Cindy Ball said, remembering Tarr as her former assistant coach.

Back in the late 90s, Tarr had big, puffy brown hair with blonde streaks that she rocked in a high ponytail above her black University of the Pacific visor. These visors were not the kind worn today that are modeled after hats, but thin rubber visors that would end up with awkward creases if you shoved them in your bag.

After graduating from the UW, Tarr continued her assistant coaching career at Pacific, where she coached for six years and was promoted to associate head coach.

Ball was a freshman during Tarr’s first year of assistant coaching. From the beginning, she felt comfortable with Tarr.

“She could tell me to hit with my shoes off and I would do it,” Ball said.

“Looking back I don’t ever think, ‘Oh Coach Tarr was an assistant coach at Pacific, it wasn’t like that, it was Coach Tarr and Coach Kolze,’” Ball added, recalling Tarr had just as many great ideas and as much passion as the head coach, Brian Kolze. Tarr took advantage of gaining coaching experience in her role at Pacific.

After Ball graduated, she coached with Tarr for two years at Pacific and is now one of Washington’s assistant coaches.

Tarr says her assistant-coaching experience helps her manage her assistants, because she appreciates the challenges of their jobs. Tarr encourages her assistant coaches to use their diverse experiences and expertise to lead.

J.T. D’Amico, her husband and an assistant coach, said: “She definitely allows her coaches to coach. Some programs aren’t that way. They have the boss, and they have everybody else that’s a bunch of yes-people that run around and run errands. Definitely not the case here.”

The Husky softball team uses different inspirational mottos for each phase of the season, and Tarr enjoys designing shirts for the players as a creative outlet. She jokes that it’s what she does instead of being a fourth-grade teacher. At Pacific, Tarr received her masters degree in education, and she considered working as a teacher.

“I think she would’ve loved to teach, I think that has really helped her with coaching,” Tarr’s mom, Ardee, said. “I feel that she’s just as much as teacher with those softball kids as I ever was in the classroom.”

Wilson, Tarr’s former coach, always figured Tarr had a future in coaching: “Heather was also about creation. When you talk about development, you see where a player has a need, and you create a way through drill instruction, verbiage, pictures, whatever the medium, you create a way to meet that student’s learning style. It was really no doubt she’d be a good teacher and a good coach.”

As the head coach

During a grey Seattle afternoon at practice, Tarr took time to work individually on the field with sophomore Marki Creger-Zier. Tarr bounced a groundball and instructed Creger-Zier to demonstrate fielding and throwing it back to her. Tarr then asked Creger-Zier to toss her a grounder as Tarr showed her smoother steps to go through the motion. She had Creger-Zier go through the footwork, over and over, her long blonde braid bouncing with each quick step.

“Your feet are all messed up so your throw’s off,” Tarr said. Each repetition Tarr would give tips and words of encouragement, her big smile frequently making an appearance across her face.

At the end of the practice, while players were putting tarp over the field, Tarr called to Creger-Zier, who was standing at the first baseline. From in front of the third base dugout Tarr tossed her a grounder, watching to see if she picked up on what they had worked on earlier.

Tarr has created a unique culture as the head coach of UW softball.

“That was really good!” Tarr said enthusiastically as Creger-Zier ran over to her, and they high-fived while the players around them headed toward the locker room.

Tarr may appear as if she was destined to be a head coach, but the Washington search committee didn’t initially seem to think so. When the position came open in 2004, Tarr had to battle as hard as she when she was trying to win her third base spot at UW. Once again, she had to make things happen on her own. UW didn’t even give her a call when she sent in her resume.

With the blessing of Wilson, Tarr was given the phone number of the director of the search committee, Ken Winstead, and they met for lunch. Tarr prepared an eight-page plan with her ideas for the position and used photos from her past as a Husky player and fan to allude to her UW roots.

Tarr recalled Winstead’s eyes got wide as he was impressed by her plan and he wanted to bring it to the search committee, but it was Tarr’s only copy, and she told him she would prefer to show it to the committee herself. Tarr got the opportunity to do so in an official interview, and she would soon have her dream job.

 In her early years as the UW head coach, Leutzinger said she heard from players that Tarr was a little more intense, possibly trying to lead in ways similar to Coach Wilson to ease the transition for her players. Leutzinger said the intensity didn’t really fit with Tarr’s personality and Tarr learned to incorporate her coaching methods.

When Leutzinger became the softball sports information director in 2009, she was surprised to hear music blasting from the speakers during batting practice. She described practices during Wilson’s reign as relatable to the military; they were run as seriously as games were played. Tarr developed a slightly more laid-back approach to practices, and if you were to walk by the field during a practice this season, you’re likely to hear Rihanna or another top-40 artist bumping over the field.

In Tarr’s last seven years in the position, she has an overall winning percentage of .685 and has led Washington to the NCAA Tournament every season. Tarr has been to the College Softball World Series three times in her eight seasons. Under Tarr, the Huskies won the 2009 national title, and she and her staff were named the NFCA National Coaching Staff of the Year. This season, the Huskies won their first 13 games and have a 19-1 record going into the Husky Softball Classic this weekend.

As the head coach, Tarr has created more than just a winning team. She’s created a culture.

“I think the best part about the culture that we’ve created here is that the right people are going to pick this place because of the right things, when they see it,” Tarr said.

She mentioned UW has all the bells and whistles with its cool facilities (“the most beautiful stadium in the country, ” she says) and the national championship trophy. But that isn’t what Tarr believes draws recruits.

“They’re gonna come here because our people are people they want to be with and play with and be like,” Tarr said.

Said J.T. D’Amico: “[Tarr] has everything that a parent would want their child to be around. And I think when you’re talking about developing people that’s the biggest compliment you could give somebody, is that other families are choosing to send their daughters here, to be in this mix led by her.”

The Husky softball team creates a family of its own, called the Inner Circle, as it spends the majority of its time practicing, playing and traveling the country together.

But Tarr stresses that the UW softball team is family friendly. She realizes that, while on the road, many athletic programs don’t allow their athletes much time to visit with their family and have the attitude of, “See ya families, this is all the team.”

Because Tarr has her family around, she feels that her players and staff should have the same opportunity to hang out and have fun with their families. Typically, on the road, the team will have a parent night in which families are invited to dinner and can get to know everyone each other. Tarr says the team has a large group of supportive followers.

“I’m just so glad all these parents can come and be a part of all this,” Tarr’s mom, Ardee, said. “There’s so many of them not from Washington, so it’s important that they feel a big part of the team, too, when their kids are gone.”

Tarr created a culture and a sense of family within the softball team, the only thing left is start her own.

The final frontier

While Tarr can relate to those involved in the program from almost every level, she lacks the experience from one position.

As a parent.

Pohlman said, at times, the team jokes that Coach Tarr and D’Amico are like their parents. When D’Amico was told about this comment, he said he would consider it more of an aunt/uncle relationship, but “whatever [the players] say is what’s real to them, which is what it is.”

Tarr says she’s getting older and reaching a point where the players she coaches could actually be her children. What once seemed so far off is more realistic now that Tarr’s past teammates and friends have kids that are teenagers.

If she were a parent, Tarr believes it would help her talk to recruits and parents of recruits because she would better understand what it feels like to have her kid leave home or be on the bench.

Tarr gushed that she wants to have kids soon.

“We just need to make it happen here!” she exclaimed.

Tarr’s family members and players responded that they have no doubt that she’ll make a great mother.

Smith has joked with Tarr that, once she graduates, the coach can have kids, and Smith will work as her babysitter. Smith envisions that Tarr’s children will have good manners, be well disciplined and really funny.

D’Amico said their kids will probably be running around the clubhouse at some point in the near future

Anyone who enters the Husky softball clubhouse can feel the positive energy. Even with outsiders present, even with media conducting interviews with players and staff, the atmosphere is cozy and relaxed. It is obvious that Pohlman feels at home in Tarr’s presence, lounging casually on a couch answering questions about her relationship with the multi-faceted head coach.

Said Pohlman: “In a sense, she kind of helps raise each of us.”

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