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Thriving, for 21 years and counting: The enduring greatness of Husky softball

Posted by: on Mar 22, 2012 | 8 Comments

 

'THRIVE' is a theme this season for the 2012 Washington softball team. Photo courtesy of UW athletics.

It’s a chilly November evening after practice, and Kylee Lahners is channeling her inner Jesus Christ in front of the entire Washington softball team.

A few minutes later, the freshman with long, brown hair – yes, just like Jesus – finishes up and takes a seat. Next up is a hilarious and equally ridiculous video, courtesy of the senior class.

Taylor Smith carries a thick British accent as a safari tour guide, and she ventures upon a deer. Its name is Kimi Pohlman. Just down the trail she spots an ostrich, and that one is Jenna Clifton.

Confused? You should be. That is, until you understand what the word “THRIVE” has to do with the Bible, athletes mimicking wild animals and Washington softball.

Heather Tarr is the last thing from boring. The bright-smiling, energetic eighth-year head coach loves creating fun, informative analogies and “those random things that try to connect the dots so players buy into themes and own them,” she explains.

So it makes sense why Tarr, a former UW walk-on-turned-All-American, assigned a team project titled “2012 Thrive Assignment.” By each class, the players were instructed to present something that exemplified the concept of “THRIVE,” one of the UW’s main team themes this season.

The “Thrive Categories” to be discussed: “The Bible,” “Biological,” “Humanistic,” “Business,” and “Anthropology.”

On the stage inside the UW football film room, the result was both silly and superb. The sophomores were victorious after they represented each letter of “THRIVE” with a player and showed how, without all the letters, the team can’t succeed. “The sophomores have some pretty smart people,” Tarr said. “It was pretty intellectual.”

Laughter and embarrassment filled that room in November, thanks to creative use of religion and wildlife, but there was a lot more gained on that night. Tarr can consider her goal accomplished.

“It was a comedy, but at the same time, we were all learning and getting different ideas of what each class thought the word ‘thrive’ meant,” junior Lindsay Monk said. “It was fun.”

And memorable, too.

“It’s not just like, ‘Oh yeah, remember that thing that we talked about a long time ago back in September?’” Pohlman said. “No. THRIVE is apart of each and every day when we come here and we perform and represent this program.”

This is a Washington program that has been thriving immensely ever since its birth just 21 years ago. Despite being a cold-weather school, Husky softball has gone above and beyond in Seattle, qualifying for the postseason 18 times in a row and winning the coveted national title in 2009.

It’s a program that started with Barbara Hedges’ intrepid ideas and Teresa Wilson’s downright dedication. It’s a program that nearly crumbled after a prescription pill controversy nine years ago. And it’s a program that, in large part thanks to Tarr, has used that successful legacy of years past and turned it into something even better.

Today, Washington softball is nationally recognized and respected. It has suffered through a scandal and the dismissal of the program’s mother. Now, it does so much more than get by.

It thrives.

 ____________________

Teresa Wilson built a powerhouse program.

 

Teresa Wilson began driving at age four. Not a car, not a van, and not even Power Wheels.

She drove tractors.

For Wilson, the values of hard work, ethics and dedication were ingrained in her while she grew up in the tiny town of Pickering, Mo. (population: 160). From dawn until dusk, Wilson and her younger brother worked hard to help raise the cows, pigs, chickens, fish and three gardens that ended up as food on the dining table each and every day.

“In our farm business, you worked for everything, and a handshake was as good as any contract,” Wilson said. “Right was right, even if nobody did it. And wrong was wrong, even if everybody did it. You learned the difference.”

When she wasn’t working 12-hour days on the farm, Wilson was busy dominating in the gym and on the field. She helped her high school basketball team win four straight state championships, but during the offseason, Wilson discovered the sport that would change her life forever — softball.

“It was something I really enjoyed and had the work ethic to be a pretty good at,” she said.

Though her high school was small – the graduating class was 28 – Wilson gained exposure playing in state championships and from her travel team. She accepted a scholarship to the University of Missouri, and simply put, the farm girl from Pickering was a stud.

Wilson still holds pitching records for career wins (102), career complete games (118), career shutouts (55) and career strikeouts (893). She threw four no-hitters, one perfect game and was the first softball player inducted to the Tigers Hall of Fame.

Two years after graduation, Wilson ditched her plans to become a reporter and decided that if she was going to be involved with athletics, it was going to be on the field and not in the press box. She was just 23 years old when she drove across the country to become the head coach at the University of Oregon.

To say that it was humble beginnings in 1985 is an understatement. The starting salary in Eugene was $8,000, the softball budget was $22,000 and there were only four scholarships.

If that wasn’t enough to show Wilson how much work she had ahead of her, the first practice was a wake-up call when only four kids showed up.

“They told me that softball had always been an option,” Wilson recalled. “I said, ‘Well, practice isn’t optional anymore.’ Four years later, we were in the College World Series.”

Instilling those same values her parents taught her at a young age – work ethic, dedication, morals — Wilson became National Coach of the Year in 1989 and then returned to the Midwest to take the head coaching job at the University of Minnesota, where she had more resources. At Oregon, Wilson’s players spent the same time parking cars, selling Christmas trees and cleaning Mac Court as they did playing softball. Now, she could concentrate more on softball and less on fundraising.

But during her first year with the Gophers, she got a call from Kit Green, Washington’s senior associate director of athletics. Along with Green, new UW athletic director Barbara Hedges was quickly starting a new softball program and needed someone to lead it.

Wilson didn’t want to leave Minnesota quite yet. She had just arrived and spent her first year rebuilding. For some reason – Wilson calls it fate – Washington decided to wait one year to officially introduce softball and by that time, the 29-year-old Wilson and longtime assistant John Rittman were ready.

“We won the Big Ten and went to postseason play,” she said. “We felt like we had left Minnesota better than we found it, and I was then OK with leaving.”

The opportunity to start a program in the best conference in the nation with a far better recruiting environment and full support from the athletic department was just too good to pass up. It was her third head coaching stint, and Wilson was ready to do something special in Seattle.

____________________

Former All-American Angie Marzetta (now Mentink) was part of a transformative recruiting class.

Today, Washington softball players will get out of class, make the short walk through the campus and arrive at the Husky Softball Stadium for practice.

In 1992, however, they loaded up a 15-passenger van and traversed through afternoon rush hour across the 520 bridge to the Hidden Valley Sports Park in Bellevue. The Huskies did not have a field on campus yet, so this was their best bet.

It wasn’t exactly Safeco Field. The field was like quicksand, and breakaway fences had to be set up in the outfield. Plus, it was public.

“You’d feel terrible,” former All-American Angie Mentink — then Angie Marzetta —  said. “You’d show up to the park, and there is the dad playing with his kid. It was like, ‘Hey, do you mind? We are going to get in practice. Sorry, but beat it. We have this thing reserved for the next couple hours.’”

Still, the players weren’t complaining. They knew what they were getting into. After all, they had all bought into the dream.

When Wilson and Rittman arrived in Seattle in the fall of 1991, they had one year to construct a team before Washington would play its inaugural game. But they had to do it without a field, without history, without proof of success to show recruits.

Wilson sold the women on one thing: the opportunity to be the first.

“I shared the dream with them,” Wilson said. “I told them that you can go to another school and be in a long line of All-Americans, or if you want to take the chance and build something that no one can take away from you, then come to Washington.”

The coaches landed four key recruits that certainly could have gone to other winning programs. Marzetta and pitcher Nancy Wagner were both from Central Arizona, a softball dynasty and watering hole for four-year schools. The other two were high school stars from California: catcher Jennifer Cline and first basemen Michelle Church. Nabbing these highly-touted players gave the program a solid foundation.

“Teresa recruited very outstanding young women,” Hedges said from her home in Palm Desert, Calif. “From the very beginning, the program was special.”

But Marzetta and Wagner had come from out-of-state junior colleges that were not used to losing, and now they had to learn to play with nine new freshmen, seven who came from Washington with the pride of representing their home state. Thanks to Wilson, though, this team quickly came together.

Wilson’s coaching philosophy centered on enforcing fundamentals and the idea of building her players from the ground up – even the already-groomed ones. Their motto that year was “Never Again. We Work So Hard With One Group of People to Achieve a Common Goal.”

“The chances of feeling the same way about your team — that sense of one, the sense of mission, the team chemistry,” she said of the motto. “You work a lifetime to create it. But you’ll never recreate that same sense of ‘team’ again.”

The players bought into it. It was a group full of pioneers without egos that wore T-shirts for the next three years that read “Attitude Is Everything.”

“There was no difference between freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors,” said Mentink, who hit a school record .472 in her first season. “We were all in it together on the same level, on the same field, wanting to do the same thing. It was a neat concept to start the tradition.”

Playing in a fierce Pac-8, where it was common for all eight schools to be in the top 20, the Huskies went 31-27 in their first year while playing in Bellevue. But to get to that next level, a stadium needed to be built.

Hedges and the athletic department had tried so hard to find a spot to build a new home for the team. They had envisioned it in at least four different spots around campus and even at Sandpoint and Bellevue, but there was a major problem with each one.

That’s where the Dawg Father came in.

All the UW head coaches were on a retreat when Hedges called Husky legend Don James and Wilson into a meeting room for no apparent reason. Hedges looked straight at the head football coach and laid it down.

“Don,” Hedges started. “We can put the softball field at the east end of Husky Stadium, but we need 20 yards of your practice football facility to do it.”

James didn’t think twice, looked back at Hedges in that room and responded.

“We have enough trouble scoring in 100 yards,” he replied. “I don’t know what we need with 150 yards.”

And with that, the marsh behind Husky Stadium on the shores of Lake Washington became home to new, $3 million Husky Softball Stadium.

“That’s the perfect example of Don James being the coach who always thought more about all the sports than just one,” Wilson said. “He’s a big part of that field.”

Though only the field and temporary bleachers were installed after the inaugural season, the Huskies followed up the 31-27 first year effort with a 43-19 record in 1994 and came just two wins short of the College World Series.

By the time the 1996 season rolled around, the concrete was poured in for a permanent grandstand, and the rest of the beautiful new stadium was completed. On the diamond, the concrete of the program’s foundation — those freshmen who bought into the dream just four years prior — were now playing in the national championship against Pac-10 powerhouse Arizona.

Rosie Leutzinger was an All-American UW shortstop in the late 90's. She returned to be the team's Sports Information Director from 2009-2010

The Wildcats ended up winning their fourth title in six years, but the loss couldn’t mask the rapid rise of the Washington program that was nothing short of extraordinary. That 1996 team finished an impressive 59-9 and won its first conference championship. A new standard had been set — not just for cold-weather schools, but for every program in the nation.

In just four years, Wilson had built a nationally recognized program from scratch. She didn’t do it because she had the best recruits. Rather, her players had a better work ethic and put in more hours than anybody else.

“What we lacked in talent, we made up in for how hard we worked and how much time we invested,” former All-American shortstop Rosie Leuztinger said.

The immediate success spoke volumes about Wilson’s ability to coach   and lead. She encouraged all her players to “master their craft” and molded decent players into All-Americans. People like Heather Tarr, who walked on and graduated as a three-time All-Pac-10 third baseman. People like Becky Newbry, who came to the UW for volleyball and left as a three-time softball All-American.

The good times weren’t just happening on the field, either. By 1996, the Huskies had produced 23 players on the Pac-10 All-Academic Team as Wilson stressed the equal importance of academics.

It wasn’t all about them, either. The first 90 minutes of practice were often spent signing Thank-You cards to Husky softball fans.

“We wanted the community to feel a part of what we did,” Wilson said.

In the clubhouse, there was a real sense of family. Wilson’s childhood values were again evident in her coaching style — loyalty was huge with these Huskies.

“She brought that feeling of, at the end of the day, the most important thing is your family,” Leuztinger said of her coach. “Since a lot of us were away from our families, this was our new family.”

For the next seven years after the loss to Arizona, the UW would go a combined 348 –118, make it back to the championship game in 1999 and finished no worse than fifth in the nation from 1996 to 2000. Washington had become a national powerhouse without 300 days of sun, a truly novel and remarkable feat.

It seemed Wilson would continue building upon the foundation and be here forever. But those values of loyalty and trust ended up backfiring on her in 2003 in a fiasco that made the head coach “put more doubt about the world than any other single thing that happened to me.”

____________________

It was never out of the ordinary when Dr. William Scheyer strolled up and down the aisles of the team plane, handing out prescription pills in small white envelopes to softball student-athletes.  After a while, he did it so much that players nicknamed him “Dr. Feelgood.”

“When you come to college and you’re 18 years old, you don’t know any better — you think it’s normal,” Leutzinger said. “We laughed about it, but never thought in a million years that anything illegal was going on.”

Nobody was laughing when all hell broke loose in October 2003.

Scheyer had been a team physician for a decade in the athletic department, but in 1999, doctors from the UW Medical Center began treating all UW athletes. Two years later, Scheyer became a “consulting physician” for the softball team, per Wilson’s special request.

“Teresa would say, ‘I’m going to push [a player], but I want to make sure I’m not breaking her, so I want to know if she’s hurting or not,’” remembers Mentink, who was an assistant from 1995-97. “Where the other doctors said there were no signs of anything and didn’t want to spend money because of the school budget, Dr. Scheyer would order the MRI.”

To many, Scheyer was a kind-hearted doctor who wanted the best for the softball players. So it came as a surprise when the 76-year-old Scheyer was suspended that October after state health investigators found that he had improperly prescribed and dispensed large quantities of prescription narcotics and tranquilizers to UW softball players over the years.

The investigation showed that former players were reportedly given narcotics and tranquilizers before games, and there was evidence of hundreds of different prescriptions filled under Scheyer’s name at multiple pharmacies.

How involved Wilson was in the fiasco was still to be determined, but the university decided to take action. In late December of 2003, the head coach who preached good morals and ethics was fired. The exact reason was vague, but Hedges cited an ongoing investigation by the school.

“In every athletic program, there are difficult days,” Hedges said. “That happened to be one of the difficult days.”

Just like that, it was over for Wilson. She had coached 11 seasons, won 532 games, produced 16 All-Americans and gone to the postseason 10 years in a row. On top of that, her players were heavily involved in the community, garnered academic accolades and set the gold standard for the student-athletes.

But now, the dream of winning a national championship was over.

Former players were stunned. It was perplexing to many because anyone who knew Wilson was aware of her morals. She even hung up a telling quote on her office door: “Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody does it.

“I can assure you this: Teresa Wilson was never trying to cheat,” said Mentink, who is now a ROOT Sports on-air personality. “She has never had a cigarette in her life, never had a drink of alcohol in her life — she’s not going to let people take drugs or steroids to get better. She would never, never, never need to be competitive like that.”

Eight years removed, you can still sense the frustration in Wilson’s voice. Her parents had taught her that if you go about your business the right way, you’ll never have to worry about anything. In the real world, that didn’t turn out to be the case.

“I got a quick education on how the world really runs,” she said.

Wilson was told to stay quiet by the department and her lawyers. To this day, she feels like she never got to tell her side of the story.

For those 11 years, the devoted coach had given her heart and soul to the program. She never got married, never had her own children. Her mother even said Wilson married her job and had 20 kids every year that she had to take care of like they were her own.

Former and current players that thought Wilson would be there forever. Her firing was like the court telling a mother she had to be separated from her kids.

“Behind the death of my parents, it’s the most devastating thing that’s happened in my career,” Wilson said.

The 41-year-old Wilson was reassigned to the department for six months to finish out her contract at a desk job, while Scheyer gave up his medical license one year later. Wilson took a head coaching offer at Texas Tech in December 2004.

Despite all the hoopla, the Huskies still managed to finish seventh at the CWS in 2004 under the guidance of two assistant coaches, Scott Centala and Steve Dailey.

“I knew the quality of the student-athletes in the program, and I knew the program was so well established that even though there had been a difficult time, the program would continue as it had,” said Hedges, who resigned in 2004.

Still, there needed to be a permanent head coach in place, someone that could maintain and build upon the foundation that Wilson worked so hard to build up. A selection committee was put into place prior to the 2005 season, and that’s when a former Husky with no head coaching experience blew everyone away.

____________________

Former player Heather Tarr proved to be the perfect fit to restore the program.

Heather Tarr walked into the Don James Center on that sunny summer day in 2004 as an underdog and almost an afterthought.

Looking to find a coach that could continue Wilson’s legacy and move the program past the “Dr. Feelgood” scandal, the UW selection committee had shuffled through several applications from established head coaches, including Missouri’s Ty Singleton and Oklahoma’s Patty Gasso.

Tarr, a former UW third baseman, was already at a disadvantage. She was only 29 years old and had never managed a college squad, but she impressed UW associate athletic director Ken Winstead enough in her one-on-one meeting – she had to apply for the job after no administrator reached out to her — and landed a final interview with three other finalists, one of which was Centala.

Tarr was the last interviewee, and no one thought too much of the ex-Husky, but they did want to hear what she had to offer.

“Just because she was young didn’t mean she’s wasn’t good,” said Lesle Gallimore, the UW women’s soccer coach who served on the committee. “She’d gone out and got experience, so why not look at someone who knows what this program is all about and at least give her a chance?”

What happened next left the committee members shaking their heads — in awe. Tarr walked in glowing with confidence and gave each member an eight-page business plan that detailed her ideas and philosophies on how she planned to lead the Husky program, from recruiting to coaching to practicing.

The cover page of the plan said it all. There were three boxes that embodied Tarr’s Husky pride: the first was a picture of her as an eight-year-old with Don James at a Husky football picture day, the second a snapshot of Tarr as a player at the UW, and the third an empty box with a question mark.

From her playing days in the 90's, Heather Tarr knew what Husky softball was all about.

“From my history, I knew there was no way that those other people could do what I could do,” Tarr said. “I knew what I could do to recruit the right people and how I could carry what Coach Wilson built and then take it to the next level.”

Tarr was more than just confident. With her history and knowledge of what the program was all about, she knew she was the best candidate. “They weren’t going to pick it based on chance,” she says.

In essence, that’s exactly what happened. Tarr was poised, prepared and passionate about doing the job better than anyone on the planet. Just after she shut the door, Gallimore looked over at Mentink, the only former player on the committee, and laughed.

“The light bulb went off, and it was an absolute no-brainer. Not even close,” said Gallimore, now in her 19th year at Washington. “Everything she knew and stood for, everything she could bring to the program outweighed all of the inexperience and risk of hiring someone that young. It wasn’t a question.”

It was a sentiment shared by just about everyone in that room. Finally, here was a coach who understood the current state of the program and someone who understood the region. They were convinced that, unlike many other candidates, Tarr was not going to use this job as a stepping stone.

“Good God,” Mentink said, thinking back to the interview. “She just knocked it out of the park.”

Tarr had her former coach’s full support as well. Wilson and her one-time walk-on had met and worked together on the five-year plan. Wilson knew she wanted to see her successor to be someone who understood Husky softball.

“To have an outsider come in would have felt like a disservice to the program,” said Wilson, who is coaching the National Pro Fastpitch League’s Carolina Diamonds this summer. “To have someone who had been there from beginning and knew the true foundation on which it was built — I was thrilled.”

The committee made their recommendation to athletic director Todd Turner, who would meet Tarr a few weeks later for lunch in Las Vegas and make a hire he would not regret.

____________________

If Teresa Wilson was the mother of the Washington program, Tarr was almost like a stepmom coming in as a replacement.

It was only natural for the current players to be weary of the first-time head coach who could have passed as a big sister. They had been through the ringer with the drug scandal, and for some of them, Tarr was their third coach in three years.

Many had wished Centala had been given the job, rather than a former player without any head coaching experience. On top of that, some thought the alumni were somehow responsible for Wilson’s exit. For Tarr, who spent the previous six years as an assistant at Pacific, this wasn’t going to be easy.

“When I took over, I think there was always that little rift,” Tarr said. “I didn’t recruit any of them, they didn’t know me and they didn’t give a crap about alumni.”

Still, Tarr had plenty to lean on. She had interacted and learned from several influential coaches over the years, whether it was Wilson, Don James or her high school basketball coach. Her main goals were to keep the program going in the right direction and maintain the same standards that were put into place from the beginning.

The Huskies finished 2005 ranked No. 14 and advanced to the Super Regionals, but it was a recruiting trip north of the border during the summer that changed so much for Tarr’s reputation.

A right-handed stud pitcher named Danielle Lawrie was competing in the Canada Cup, and Tarr had been in touch with the ace from the day she was hired as head coach in 2004.  The two met, and Lawrie wound up being Tarr’s first recruit. She also happened to become a two-time national player of the year.

It was a statement of sorts. Lawrie had just beaten Team USA in the tournament, and UW players took notice.

“They were like, ‘Wait a minute, we have THAT coming in? Hold on,’” Tarr recalled. “I think that kind of helped switch the mindset of like, ‘OK, the coaches kind of know what they are doing.’”

But the Huskies didn’t fare much better in 2006, as they nearly dropped out of the rankings for the first time since the inaugural 1993 season, finishing just 35-25. Though the team struggled and almost finished with the worst record in history, Tarr was learning.

“Those first couple seasons really made Heather convicted in what she knew she wanted to do as far as how the kids act and their respect for the game,” said J.T. D’Amico, current UW assistant coach and Tarr’s husband. “I think it actually expedited her development from a program leadership standpoint.”

At the beginning of 2007, another rift had formed between a senior class largely made up of players outside of Washington and a freshmen group of six in-state recruits. During the first few practices, the freshmen would give maximum effort, whether it was running back and forth in pickles or sliding hard into bases. In a sense, the seniors felt like the newbies were making them look bad.

“In the fall, this kind of was our welcoming: ‘Hey, freshmen, chill out and don’t practice like that,’” said Bailey Stenson, who was a freshman at the time. “We were like, ‘What?’ We had never been told not to run hard.”

The attitude changed midway through 2007. Tarr decided that she wanted to put the program’s values and goals down on paper. It was time to intentionally create the culture. Players like Dominque Lastrapes, Dena Tyson and Ashley Charters helped Tarr develop a standard for how the players talked, how they acted, how they lived.

“It was like, ‘What do we want people to say if they were walking by and they saw us practicing?’” Tarr explained. “They helped me craft the idea.”

Her players were changing, and so was Tarr. Some say that Tarr was like an emotional roller coaster during the fall; her decisions and reactions were always based on her feelings. By the time the postseason arrived and the Huskies tied for third at the College World Series, things had changed.

‘If you look at the postseason, she held in her emotions, and she made more decisions based on the actual situation,” Stenson said. “It was really awesome to see that growth.”

For Tarr, she wasn’t as concerned anymore with proving herself as she was doing what she knew was right. She was turning into a confident coach, and in turn, her players began buying in. Tarr was also figuring out what type of players to recruit – not only great, all-around athletes, but more importantly, good people.

Slowly, it was becoming a team she could call her own, one that was climbing back up the ladder to national prominence.

____________________

The greatest team in Washington softball history: the 2009 Huskies.

Bailey Stenson dips a skinny brown Nature Valley granola bar into a cup of Greek yogurt. In between crunchy bites, she starts talking about her favorite season as a Husky.

In terms of record, 2008 was abysmal in comparison to the program’s history. The team only had one senior and three of the UW’s best players redshirted, which left freshmen starting at shortstop, second base and first base. The Huskies nearly missed regionals and almost dropped out of the top-25 — two things that hadn’t happened since 1993.

But even though “we were the Bad News Bears,” that year was the definition of suffering before succeeding, and that’s what makes it so special for Stenson. This squad learned what it was like to lose, and every player gained valuable experience on the field.

“Everyone got to play,” said Stenson, who started at second base as a sophomore. “People who were walk-ons, people who had never seen the field on any given day got to play.”

It was a valuable experience for Tarr, too. Ashley Charters and Lauren Greer were both redshirting, and that left just one senior on the roster in Caitlin Noble. That meant everybody else was a Tarr recruit. The fourth-year head coach finally had a team she really could call her own, and in turn, it was easier to get the players to buy into her philosophies.

“The people that I work best with, they know me,” Tarr says. “They trust me.”

It could have been easy to label 2008 as a rebuilding year, but Tarr and her players turned it into a building year that helped prepare the Huskies for what was to be a historic 2009 season. Where a lot of teams could have completely broken down due to the lack of talent – Lawrie also redshirted to represent Team Canada in the Summer Olympics — these Huskies took advantage of every opportunity they had and Tarr helped keep them together.

It all set up for a special 2009 season.

“Everyone knew that we were going to win it all in 2009. Everyone knew,” Stenson said. “We all talked about it like we were just going to win it. We just had the perfect team.”

Lawrie, who had set the school-record with 457 strikeouts in 2007, was back to be the UW ace. There were also two uber-talented freshman in Pohlman and Niki Williams who would provide instant offense. Finally, All-American shortstop Jenn Salling, an Oregon transfer, joined the Huskies at midseason.

But perhaps the biggest piece to the puzzle was the return of Charters, a Teresa Wilson recruit – one of two on the roster — who was playing her final season as a Husky after sitting out 2008. Every perfect team needs superb leadership, and Charters assumed that role in 2009.

“Ashley was just not going to let that team lose,” said Leutzinger, who was the team’s sports information director in 2009 and 2010. “From Day One of that season, she just kind of took it upon herself and was going to do whatever she could. She was such a leader.”

Charters, who is now playing professional softball with Lawrie for the USSSA Pride, knew what it felt like to lose at Oklahoma City. The 2007 team placed third, and it left a bad taste. With Lawrie back, Charters said she knew something was special about the 2009 team.

“We were still the underdogs and not expected to win, but we knew we had all the tools — the team chemistry, the pitching, the leadership, everything,” she said. “It was our year to win.”

Most of those inexperienced players that had started in 2008 were now relegated to the bench in place of the returners. Still, Tarr found a way to get everybody playing time. The experience they gained in 2008 paid huge dividends.

And even if the backups weren’t playing, they were giving full support. Players would be cheering for their teammates both on offense and defense, with “their veins popping out of their forehead,” as Tarr remembers. One of her five core team values is selflessness, and that’s exactly what this team was all about. It was those players who really made a difference, even if they didn’t play every day.

“You want to have All-Americans and top performers, but the bread to the sandwich — which is the boring part — is so important,” Tarr said. “Do you know how good sandwiches are when they have good bread? That’s what I’m talking about.”

The Huskies weren’t the perfect sandwich in the regular season by any means, finishing Pac-10 play 14-7, but they had lost enough games where they could learn from their mistakes. They won big games, but they also understood how to respond after losing big games.

It proved valuable in the postseason, where the UW would be on the road for three weeks. Because Husky Softball Stadium had yet to install lights, hosting a regional round was impossible, and the third-seeded Huskies were forced to travel across the country to Amherst, Mass., for regional play.

“They wanted to give us the hardest path, and when people don’t want you to win, that’s the best way to do it,” Lawrie said. “It’s game on. Let’s go. That was always our attitude.”

What transpired on May 17, 2009, will be etched in Husky softball history forever. The Huskies had defeated UMass one day before, but then fell the next day to set up a win-or-go-home evening game.

It was a good thing there were lights, because this one went well into extra innings. The players were drained from the game one earlier in the day, but none more so than the starting pitchers.

Lawrie had tossed 251 pitches in Game 2 and was closing in on 500 for the day. Physically, she was hurting. Mentally, though, it was worse.

With the teams locked in a 1-1 tie, Lawrie was searching for internal motivation. It came when she peered into the UMass dugout and gazed at their starting pitcher, Brandice Balschmiter.

“My mentality was that there was no way she worked harder than me on the mental side to be ready,” said Lawrie, who finished with a program-record 24 strikeouts. “For me to give up and be tired, I was just not going to. It’s a mentality. If you say you can’t do it, you really won’t do it.”

Lawrie somehow persevered, lasting 14 innings when the Huskies finally broke through for five runs in the top of the 15th and advanced to the Super Regionals with a memorable 6-1 win.

Leutzinger said the performance was the most amazing thing she’s ever seen at a sporting event. This was coming from someone who still holds the UW record for at-bats and who played in four consecutive College World Series.

“You just kind of knew that after that, there was no way anything was going to get in that team’s way,” Leutzinger said.

The Huskies traveled to Georgia Tech, crushing the Yellow Jackets in consecutive days to move on to Oklahoma City. There, they eventually met Florida in the championship game.

During the run, Tarr showed highlight videos to her team that she produced (Search for the username “Washingtonsoftball” on YouTube to see other videos that Tarr produces on her own). Starting in Amherst, she would add clips from every game on to a running thread on the same highlight video. By the time the championship series started, the video was 25 minutes long.

The players would meet in Tarr’s hotel room every day before boarding the bus and would sit together in silence and watch. The inspirational images helped the players keep the mentality of one day at a time.

“Those were some of her finest moments,” said D’Amico, who was in his first year as assistant coach. “She was able to keep it so real and so fresh.”

The Huskies cruised by the Gators in Game 1, 8-0, but Game 2 was a different story. Just five batters into the game, Florida took a quick 2-0 lead. But the Huskies came back to tie it at 2 in the bottom frame and went ahead two innings later when Pohlman slid across home plate.

Lawrie, who had pitched a shutout the night before, was once again tested in a seventh-inning jam and a national championship in the UW’s grasp. With runners at first and second, with history on the line, it was only right when Lawrie fanned two straight Gators to seal the UW’s first ever national title.

Pure ecstasy ensued on the field, with the Huskies in their all-white uniforms diving on top of each other and crying tears of joy. They knew they were going to do it, and now it had become a reality.

Sixteen years after Wilson planted the seeds, Tarr had watered, fertilized and then allowed the program to blossom. She had a team that trusted her and believed in her.

The dream was complete.

____________________

Freshman Kimberlee Souza is sitting on the edge of the couch, leaning forward, eyes down, eyebrows crunched, both index fingers pressing against the arch of her nose. The 5-foot-3 native of Hawaii is in the coach’s room at Husky Softball Stadium, trying to remember the UW softball alumni who wore her No. 5 uniform.

Tarr walks by, grinning. She assigns a project to all incoming freshman that requires them to research the players who have had the honor of wearing the same number that is stitched onto their own jerseys.

“There’s Christie Rosenblad and Amanda Fleischman,” Souza recalls. “But I can only think of two.”

“Didn’t Leslie Scott wear it?” Tarr asks.

“Oh, yep, Leslie Scott,” Souza replies, then pauses. “There are two more. I know there were five.

“You should know it. It was in that paper, right Kim?” Tarr says to her freshman.

Souza smiles, says “I know,” and keeps thinking.

“They were kind of random,” Tarr says, walking away. “Honestly, you’re going to write the history for No. 5, OK?”

Souza smiles again and gives a little chuckle as her head coach leaves the room.

This is present-day Husky softball, where you honor those who have come before you and strive to thrive – remember that theme? — on and off the field. Some of the basics values that Teresa Wilson instilled — work ethic, respecting the program, involvement with community — are still visibly present in every player on the current roster.

“We are all about Husky softball and the past — we are who we are because of everything that’s happened,” sophomore Victoria Hayward said. “Not just All-Americans — everybody that has ever been involved with this program has had a huge impact on us.”

But Tarr, whose contract runs through 2014, has added in her own flair to this program. The 37-year-old is more of a relaxed, approachable players’ coach than Wilson was, but also knows when to be the hard-nosed leader.

“From an emotional clarity standpoint, she’s so consistent in what she does,” said D’Amico, whose father coached Tarr in Little League. “There are times when the team needs that emotional charge. She’s very good at that.”

The Tarr of 2005 is so much different than the Tarr of 2012. It’s a better, more-improved coach. Stenson said she went from being that stepmom and turned into “mom.”

“When she started, she was a young kid coaching a bunch of other young kids who didn’t really know what they were doing and didn’t trust her or believe in her,” Stenson said. “Now, she is running that ship. She is a boss.”

It’s taken some time, but the boss seems to have found that perfect balance. She has a competitive, gritty toughness about her that she’s carried since going toe-to-toe with the boys on the Little League baseball All-Star team as a teenager and continued during her playing days at the UW.

But she also has a compassionate, kind-hearted soft side, too. It’s why players feel comfortable just hanging out with her in the coach’s office, or why Lawrie says Tarr will be at her wedding one day.

The 37-year-old started as a walk-on and turned into an All-Pac-10 third baseman. Then, she started as a long-shot candidate with no head coaching experience and then won a national championship five years later.

Sitting in a black leather chair in her office at Husky Softball Stadium, Tarr is relaxed with her golden blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. She’s comfortable as ever in the driver’s seat of this stellar program, but still, there is so much more left to do.

Did you really think Heather Tarr would be satisfied with just one title?

“We can’t any longer say, ‘Let’s try to be the first ones at Washington do it.’ We did it,” she says of winning it all. “Now it’s like, ‘O.K., now we got to do it again.’”

But it’s more than that. To thrive, Tarr explains, is to be in a place where you become not only a better player, but a better person.

“They are going to get into their career and we don’t want them to just earn a wage,” she says. “We want them to be a leader at something. Go run a business. Go be a CEO. Go do something significant.”

For the Washington softball team, doing more than what’s expected is really what THRIVE is all about. It’s a perfect word to describe a program on a never-ending quest for excellence.

 

SIDEBAR: An in-depth look into the 2010 season:  http://uwhuskyfever.com/inside-2010-defending-a-national-title-wasnt-all-that-easy/

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