July 17, 2009

With the 2008-09 season fading into memory and fall practices still a month away, NCAA.com is spending two weeks in July looking back on 10 athletic programs that stood not just once, but twice (and, in three cases, thrice) atop the college sports world with national championships in '08-`09. From Messiah's magic soccer runs to Washington's scintillating softball title, this 10-part series showcases the schools that helped to define another unforgettable year of college sports.

Messiah (July 9) | Texas A&M (July 10) | Penn State (July 13) | Messiah (July 14)
Maryland (July 15) | Cortland State (July 16) | Washington (July 17) | North Carolina (July 20)

Washington Championship Photo Gallery

By Kevin Scheitrum

The six women in the shy shade of purple running in a frost-stained Terre Haute last fall looked, by comparison, a lot like the sunburned ones in purple who, with the cameras delivering them in high-definition to an ESPN audience, flooded from the Oklahoma City dugout in May.

Both teams – Washington’s women’s cross country team and the Huskies’ softball team – hold the special significance of taking home the first-ever national championships in their sports’ histories at Washington. Both began the season as teams confident internally and largely forgotten outside of Seattle. Both stormed through their championships. The only difference, really, was the exposure.

Where the softball team had TV crews, a primetime slot and a Women’s College World Series record for attendance, the cross country team had tundra, a few thousand spectators and wax cups along the route. But the difference in notoriety should not obscure the fact that over the past year, both teams pulled off two of the finest seasons in the history of Washington athletics.

“What was really cool about [the championships] is that we like to talk and brag about our student athletes, how great of character they have – but as students, they’re smart, bright, energetic young ladies, and it’s such a delight to watch them attain their goals,” said Washington athletic director Scott Woodward. “Frankly, it was like they expected it.

“We expect it,” Woodward continued. “[Success] is something we’re accustomed to do – we want to compete at the highest level.”

Click here for the Women's College World Series interactive bracket!

Let the awards speak first in attesting to what the Washington cross country team accomplished in 2008: The Huskies swept the Pac-10 cross country awards, with freshman Kendra Schaaf taking home Cross Country Athlete of the Year Honors, Christine Babcock earning the nod as Newcomer of the Year and coach Greg Metcalf notching Coach of the Year. Six of the seven places on the Pac-10 First Team were occupied by Huskies: joining Schaaf and Babcok were seniors Anita Campbell and Amanda Miller, junior Katie Follett and sophomore Mel Lawrence.

The team was named the USTFCCCA Scholar Team of the Year in March. In December, Metcalf was named D-I Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year by the USTFCCCA.

Now, let the awards fade, dropping the subjectivity for the raw numbers – a rare chance to be able to construct a frame around a rare, peerless brilliance.

Before even getting to Nationals, Washington had claimed history. On Oct. 31, just over three weeks after taking their first-ever No. 1 ranking in the USTFCCCA poll, the Huskies became the first team to ever sweep the Pac-10 Championships, sending all six of their runners across the line for the first perfect score (15) in Pac-10 men’s or women’s history and the Huskies’ second-ever women’s conference championship.

Keep in mind that this was a race on Oregon’s home course. Second-ranked Oregon’s home course. Against a field that also included No. 15 Arizona State and an 18th-ranked Stanford team that had won 12 straight conference titles to that point.

It didn’t matter.

The first four Huskies all clocked in under the old course record. Led by Schaaf, who finished in 19:24, incinerating the Pac-10 6,000-meter record of 19:40 and cutting 33 seconds off the previous course record, Lawrence, Babcock and Campbell all came in within between 19:53 and 19:57.

Following were Follett, at 20:05, for sixth and Amanda Miller, whose sixth-place finish beat every other team’s first-place finisher but was edged out by her five teammates’ scores.

"It's pretty amazing for us," said Campbell, a senior All-American, said after the race. “We’re shocked but at the same time we had conversations last night with Coach Metcalf, and he kind of likes to joke around and say we can possibly score 15 points, and then something like this happens. So he instilled in us that we need to dream big and expect big things. It's so exciting, and we just can't wait for the next three weeks. I'm confident saying that we're not the best that we can be. We want the big prize at the end."

Three weeks later – with a stop in between to cruise to a West Regional title – they got it.

Five Huskies finished in the top-40, posting a meet-best score of 79 to out-pace second-ranked Oregon, who came in with a 131. The win came just two years after Washington failed to qualify for the national meet – but just a year after the Huskies blasted out of nowhere to finish eighth.

This time, Babcock led, finishing seventh with a 20:01.7. Then came Schaaf, in 12th. Lawrence, in 25th; Follett, in 26th and Miller in 34th came through to clinch the title.

"To come here as the favorite and get the win, it says a lot about where we come in the last four years, and the direction from here,” Metcalf said in the Washington release after the meet. “We only graduate two seniors. We should be better next year, so all is good in Seattle right now."

For the Husky softball team, for a three-week stretch that started in mid-May and snuck into early June, all was very good.

The Huskies, after tripping in the first championship game in regionals against Massachusetts – a game that forced a decisive third game, with UMass coming from the losers’ bracket and Washington able to absorb a loss – didn’t lose again until the Bracket 1 final (national semifinal) in the Women’s College World Series.

Over the next four games, spanning a 7-0 and 7-1 sweep of Georgia Tech in the Super Regionals and 3-1 and 1-0 wins over Georgia and Arizona State, respectively, in the first two games of the CWS, Washington allowed just two runs, standing on the sound shoulders Danielle Lawrie, the recently named US Softball Collegiate Player of the Year.

In the team’s first-ever appearance in the WCWS, Lawrie made sure the stay wouldn’t be short. Scattering eight hits between the first two games in Oklahoma City, the tournament Most Outstanding Player burned through the bracket.

“When you have a special talent like Danielle Lawrie, you never knew where you can go,” Woodward said.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Huskies gave the junior all the support she’d need. After the three runs in the first game, Washington was held scoreless through seven in the second. Then, in the bottom of the eighth, Morgan Stuart’s single through the left side drove in Kimi Pohlman to give the Huskies a walk-off win over the defending national champs.

Georgia handed the Huskies their first loss in two weeks in the bracket final, 9-8. A night later, Washington came back, dropping the Bulldogs, 9-3, in the decisive bracket final. Florida waited in the final. And at no point did Washington look like it was at a disadvantage taking on a team that started the season at No. 1 and did nothing all year long to dissuade the voters otherwise, rattling off a 60-3 record up through the final.

“All the commentators granted the crown to the SEC, and our kids took it personally,” Woodward said. “The Pac-10 has a serious record in softball, and to crown somebody else – we took it as an insult.”

Then, crack, an 8-0 loss – the Gators’ first loss in 29 games. Lawrie struck out 12, walked three and allowed two hits in the win. A four-run third followed by a two-run fifth (featuring Stuart’s WCWS-record fourth double) and a home run by Ashley Charters made it 8-0 and sent the Huskies to within a win away from their first-ever WCWS crown.

It came a night later.

Florida opened up with two off Lawrie in the first, as the defending champs dug in. Washington roared back in the bottom half, getting two off Florida’s Stacey Nelson, the nation’s leader in ERA, Lawrie drove in a run and a wild pitch sent Pohlman scampering home.

Two innings later, the last run of the 2009 D-I Softball season came home, when Pohlman – who else – scored on a tapper back to the pitcher by (again, who else?) Stuart. From there, Lawrie got to work. And although Florida reached base – the Gators collected five hits over the last four innings – they’d never score again, stranding seven runners and ending the game on a strikeout by Lawrie that sent two dozen gloves skyward and a trophy back to Washington.

“We knew it was gonna be hard, but intimidated, worried? I don’t think that was in our vocabulary,” Woodward said. “But I can tell you, we were ready to play.”