College Softball: UW's trip to WCWS is culmination of a four-year rebuild
UW's 2-1 NCAA Softball Super Regional Game 3 win against Utah Sunday night might not have looked as convincing as their 10-4 blowout against the Utes in the first game of the series.
But for Huskies' coach Heather Tarr, that defensive battle was a thing of beauty. It represented everything she's been trying to teach her team for the last two years, as they painstakingly acquired all the pieces needed to make another run to the Women's College World Series.
The sixth-seeded Huskies (48-12) have been to Division I softball's elite eight in Oklahoma City 11 times in program history. This 12th appearance, which begins on Thursday against yet another Pac-12 foe -- Oregon -- is Tarr's fifth trip as head coach, and the Huskies' first return to the WCWS since 2013.
The Huskies leaned on their defense Sunday night to punch their ticket to Oklahoma City.
That's because it's taken Tarr and her staff four years to restock the roster after that successful 2013 run when the Huskies finished third overall behind top-notch pitchers Kaitlin Inglesby and Bryana Walker, who both graduated in 2014.
Inglesby and Walker's departure, coupled with the early commitment of starting pitcher Taran Alvelo, who verbally pledged to play for the Huskies as a high school freshman in 2012, left a big void in the Huskies' pitching staff.
"We got Taran so early, we almost got Taran before we could get somebody before her," Tarr said Monday, as the team got ready to board a bus bound for the airport to catch a plane to Oklahoma City. "We didn't get a pitcher out of that 2014 high school class because we got Taran first. I don't know if (having) Taran scared people off, but we just couldn't quite find the arm we wanted."
Alvelo was part of the high school class of 2015 and joined the Huskies before the 2016 season. She's started 34 games for UW this year, and has a 2.05 ERA to go with a 33-7 record.
But for two seasons before their stud pitcher arrived, the Huskies made do and tried to compensate for their pitching deficiencies by generating a lot of offense.
That's the sort of environment seniors like Ali Aguilar and Casey Stangel, and the big junior class of current starters Taylor Van Zee, Kelly Burdick, Julia DePonte, Trysten Melhart and Kirstyn Thomas all came of age in: Score, score, score or we might get outscored.
"That group is very offensive-minded. ... Taylor's freshman year (in 2015), we'd score six runs in one inning, and give up seven. In one inning," Tarr said. "We didn't have a defense. We'd give them the momentum right back."
That year, Washington ranked third in the Pac-12 in home runs (86), RBIs (419) and runs scored (460) but was eighth with a 5.07 team ERA.
That was the genesis of the team's catch phrase "be paranoid," otherwise translated as, "Knowing that until the last out of the game, we're never out of it," said Stangel, the left fielder. "That maybe started with having the feeling that we never know, four runs might not be enough or six runs might not be enough. That was something we faced a couple of years ago."
Their formerly shaky pitching forced the Huskies to develop formidable hitters, which has paid dividends this season. UW ranks 12th nationally with a .324 batting average, and is 11th in scoring, averaging 6.1 runs per game. The Huskies have reached double digits in hits in six of their last nine games, and have haunted many opposing pitchers with their deep lineup of insatiable hitters.
But paranoia can sometimes be a double-edged sword. In late March, after the Huskies dropped three-straight conference games to powerhouse Arizona by a combined score of 20-2, Tarr realized her team was undermining itself because everyone was getting too uptight about scoring runs.
So Tarr met individually with her upperclassmen and conveyed a similar message to each player: "I want you to have some perspective," she told them. "If we don't score eight runs a game or 10 runs a game, don't let it make us anxious. It's OK. It's going to come around. You just have to find a way to score some runs if you have a shutdown defense. It's not about outscoring, outscoring, outscoring."
Tarr refocused her hitters' attention on getting quality plate appearances -- putting pressure on the defense, making solid contact with the ball, extending at-bats and hitting for the situation.
As the Huskies loosened up and shifted their attention from quantity to quality and emphasis on tough defense, the runs started coming again.
But then came a game like the one on Sunday, when a determined opposing pitcher kept seven of UW's nine batters without a hit.
This time, there was no frustration, no panic. Instead, the Huskies closed ranks, stuck by Alvelo defensively and stayed patient offensively. Even though they gave up eight hits to Utah, the Huskies held the Utes to one run, and that proved good enough for the win.
"That game epitomizes the growth this team has had," Tarr said. "They can't expect that they're gonna score eight runs a game and win eight to seven. We need the shutdown arm to get where we want to go, and we need that shutdown defense. Hopefully we don't just score a couple of runs. But if you get into that situation where you do get into that close one-run ball game, that's what this is all about. Being able to play the game the right way. This whole weekend was characteristic of our growth."
Their journey through Regionals and Super Regionals showed the Huskies that they can win in a multitude of ways.
"Our pitching has grown. Our hitting has continued to grow. It's just all come to a good point for us," Stangel said.
Now, No. 3 seed Oregon (52-6) awaits in Oklahoma City, a team UW played very close in their three-game series in Eugene last month.
The Huskies went 2-1 against the Ducks in Pac-12 play, and just as it was in UW's Super Regional against Utah, both teams are intimately familiar with one another and are gearing up for what should be a closely-contested game.
"It's going to be really hard," Tarr said. "We know each other and there's not going to be any surprises. It will be good, very equal."
This article is written by Stefanie Loh from Seattle Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.