June 1, 2010

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By Jim Whiting
Special to NCAA.com

SEATTLE - Job-seekers in today's troubled economy can identify with Heather Tarr, coach of the defending Women's College World Series champion Washington Huskies.

When the school fired coach Teresa Wilson, who had led the Huskies to national prominence after founding the softball program in 1993, in the wake of a prescription drug scandal in 2004, Tarr sent in her resume. And waited. And waited. And waited.

The lack of response wasn't entirely surprising. The school sought a big name as Wilson's replacement. While Tarr had distinguished herself as a third baseman for the Huskies in the mid-1990s, playing in the Women's College World Series championship game in 1996, she was still only 29. And her only coaching experience, besides a year as a Washington volunteer assistant, had been as an assistant at Pacific.

On paper, that was nowhere near what the committee charged with selecting Wilson's successor had in mind.

But Tarr is nothing if not self-confident. In her mind, she had one huge intangible: being a part of the Husky softball program virtually from its inception and an integral element in its success.

And imaginative. A three-time member of the Pac-10 All-Academic team, Tarr dug out a photo of herself as an 8-year-old standing next to then-Washington football coach Don James, arguably the most revered head coach in school history. Along with a shot of herself in her Husky uniform and a large question mark, the James photo was on the cover of a "business plan" she put together.

That plan - a detailed description of her approach to coaching laying out virtually everything from her overall philosophy to individual workouts and how she would handle recruiting - was the steak to the cover's sizzle. Along with unsolicited testimonials that began flooding into Seattle from people who knew Tarr, the plan made the search committee sit up and take notice.

Tarr's wait was over. She was called in for an interview, which rocketed her to the top of the list. The final step came when she won over Todd Turner, the newly appointed athletic director.

Tarr made no secret of her differences with Wilson, who had a reputation as a hard-driving disciplinarian. Tarr casts herself as a "player's coach." And unlike Wilson, who alienated many Washington high school coaches by filling her roster largely with out-of-state talent, Tarr picks the best local athletes.

Soon after her appointment, Tarr secured her first recruit. It was a pitcher from Langley, B.C., named Danielle Lawrie.

Lawrie entered the program in 2006 and put up good if not spectacular numbers: 23-16, a 1.44 ERA and 387 strikeouts. The next year she went 31-13 with a 1.54 ERA and 457 strikeouts as the Huskies made their first trip to the College World Series under Tarr, winning their first two games before dropping a pair to eventual champion Arizona.

Lawrie redshirted the next year to prepare for the Olympics as a member of the Canadian team. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Huskies didn't make it out of regionals. And Lawrie didn't make it off the bench in Beijing. The experience was a revelation for her and made her prize her relationship with Tarr even more.

Things came together for Tarr and the Huskies in 2009. Lawrie went 42-8, had a 0.97 ERA and fanned 521.

Because the Huskies' home field didn't have lights, Tarr's geography major at Washington came in handy. The team traveled to Massachusetts for the regionals, winning a legendary 15-inning, win-or-go-home game against UMass with Lawrie throwing an astonishing 251 pitches.

Rather than coming home and then flying to Georgia for the super regional, the Huskies elected to remain on the road. The nearly 7,000-mile odyssey continued as they headed for Oklahoma City and eventually the national title.

To prevent a recurrence, a group of donors funded a full set of stadium lights. As a result, the Huskies played both regionals and Super Regionals at home this year.

They nearly squandered that advantage in the Super Regional, losing a 6-1 smackdown in the opening game as Oklahoma slammed five homers off Lawrie - 38-2 coming in with a 0.94 ERA - in her worst performance of the year. The Husky bats went AWOL as well, with a seventh-inning ground single the only ball that left the infield.

Yet Tarr's demeanor belied any notion that she was panicked, that her team seemed on the verge of a meltdown.

"I think if we had played with our hair on fire a little bit more from the first inning, we might not be in the first press conference [when the losing team appears] right now," she cracked.

More seriously, she added: "Tomorrow's a new day. We'll see how much fight we have in us, and I think we have a lot of fight in us. We're a good team."

Tarr's confidence was contagious. Step 1 was sitting down with Lawrie immediately and watching the game film to get her poor performance out of her system. With Lawrie bouncing back the next evening with two shutouts and some timely hitting from her teammates, the Huskies punched their ticket to Oklahoma City, where they will play Georgia in the first round on Thursday.

Tarr, still only in her mid-30s, appears likely to have a long and stellar career ahead of her. Sometime in the future, that old photo of her with Don James could take on a whole new meaning.

"There's Heather Tarr when she was a kid," people might observe. "But who's the guy standing next to her?"

HEATHER TARR'S RECORD AT WASHINGTON 2005: 35-22, won regional, lost in super regional 2006: 35-25, won regional, lost in super regional 2007: 42-19, won regional, won super regional, won first two games at WCWS 2008: 30-25-1, lost in regional 2009: 51-12, national champions 2010: 50-7, won regional, won super regional