Celebrating 10 Years Of Washington Softball

Jan. 18, 2002

By Jana Hunter

Collectively it's somewhat mind-boggling that a program so young in years, can be so established in tradition, honors and expectations. But, while the accolades and achievements impress, inspire and distinguish, the rich history is not really about the stats. It's about the players and coaches who define ambition, excellence and consistency.

Many outsiders look at the University of Washington's early successes and marvel how a program could become a national force in just one four-year cycle of players. More impressive still is that the next group of players, and the next, have kept the Huskies knocking at the door of a national title. But most of the fruits of the program's labor from the past 10 years aren't necessarily perceptible to outsiders. The stats are great, but they barely scratch the surface of why this program has so much to celebrate.

With any truly great athletic team or program, it's the intangibles that most outsiders cannot count or quantify or even consciously recognize that set it apart from others. Like student-athletes learning to be well-mannered and thankful and courteous. Like teams that play with competitive emotion yet display humble sportsmanship. Like a program that sends its band to the College World Series and becomes the crowd favorite. Like former players who were impacted by their time as a Husky to such a degree they entered the coaching profession themselves. Like all but three players who completed her eligibility at UW attending the program's first alumnae weekend. Like a coaching staff on which only six people have filled three full-time positions for a combined 26 years.

Head coach Teresa Wilson embodies the Husky softball program. To say she works hard is a laughable understatement, and she draws that same work ethic from her players. To say she had extracted success from her teams at two previous universities also underrates her accomplishments of developing young programs into NCAA postseason participants, earning conference and national coach-of-the-year honors. And to say she appreciates the help and encouragement of her staff and supporters, belittles her gratitude.

Each Husky team has been different, with different strengths, different obstacles, different rewards. Yet each team has been the same, sharing with its predecessors and coach traits of determination, perseverance and a hatred of losing. Together, they have won almost 73 percent of the time they have taken the field. They can never be accused of taking the easy road, because 71 percent of their games have been played on the road. They can never be accused of padding their schedule with lesser opponents, because more than half their games (309) have come against teams ranked in the top 25 in the nation (winning 166). And they can never be accused of focusing on softball instead of academics, because the Huskies have earned more academic all-Pac-10 honors than any other league program. In fact, Washington has almost three times the number of first-team selections (29) than the next-closest team over the same time span.

The inaugural squad in 1993 has to take the award in guts. The group of eight freshmen, two sophomores with no collegiate experience, and five community college transfers had no field or locker room of their own, no returning Huskies to lead them through workouts or around campus, and no experience with the yellow ball which the Pac-10 began using that year. The only thing they had was an exacting coach who took away the one thing they had to fall back on: 'We told the players we don't want anyone to use the fact that this is our first year as the excuse to not live up to our expectations.' They didn't, not even in their first two games. After losing their inaugural outing to Michigan, ranked 11th in the nation, they regrouped the next day to defeat the same team, 4-0. The Huskies finished at 31-27 overall and placed seventh in the Pac-10 (7-18). They even made a brief appearance in the top-25 poll.

It took only one full season to convince the softball world that Washington was for real. Early in 1994, after winning nine of their first 11 games, the Huskies earned a spot in the top 15 of the national poll and haven't dropped out since. That squad handed eventual national champion Arizona its only loss of the Pac-10 season, placed third in the conference (14-10), and won a game in the program's inaugural appearance in the NCAA tournament. It finished with a respectable 44-21 mark, considering 37 games were against ranked foes. Washington also flourished in its first season with a home facility, opening with a no-hit win over Willamette at Husky Softball Field and winning 16 of 20 overall.

Wilson had held out as long as she could. In 1995, she verbalized her expectations that the Huskies contend for a national championship in the next two years. That squad responded, the players committed and determined to meet what some would consider an unrealistic and unattainable goal. They notched the program's first 50-win season (50-23) and finished 10th in the national poll. They brought home the program's first tournament title by winning the National Invitational Softball Tournament and placed fourth in the Pac-10 (17-11). And nine of them earned all-conference honors, more than any other team. The squad furthered its status as a powerful program by producing the third-highest season total of runs and hits in NCAA history.

Previewing the 1996 squad, Wilson set the stage for the coming season: 'Four years ago, our first recruiting class chose to turn down opportunities to attend some of the best softball programs in the country. Instead, they chose to come to Washington and start a program of their own. In three short years, they have put our program in the top 10 in the nation and taken us to postseason play twice. We have one more step to take - the College World Series and a national championship.' The Huskies plowed through the season with a mission, winning the Pac-10 title (23-4), putting together winning streaks of 19 and 15 games, and topping the national poll much of the year. And the Huskies showed no signs of slowing in the postseason. In their first six NCAA tournament games, including the three of a regional tournament they earned the right to host and three in their first-ever College World Series, UW outscored their opponents, 44-14. But in the championship game, with the season series tied at three between the two teams, Washington could not win the rubber match against Arizona and fell, 6-4. The team finished the season at 59-9.

Were the players disappointed? Certainly. But were they second-guessing their choice of schools, perhaps wishing they'd have taken the road more traveled, the easier path that would have attached their names to established programs? Doubtful. Like the head coach who recruited them, that core group who sacrificed, worked, learned, improved and persevered would have been no more satisfied with taking the easy way, than with a perfect season in which their contributions were barely noticed.

That's not an inflated ego, though some may mistake it for that. It's not athletes wanting to be given a starting job without the effort of battling upperclassmen for it, starting is merely a manifestation of the phenomenon. And it's not players wanting to begin a program just to say they did, that's a by-product. It's an internal drive, a rare gumption that pushes those who possess it beyond a conventional limit into a space that few recognize and fewer still understand.

Everyone talks about the amazing success of the 1996 team, and no accolade bestowed upon that squad could be considered superfluous. But the accomplishments and daring determination of the 1997 team sometimes go unnoticed. Not only did it lose eight players, six of whom combined to start 1,095 games. But it also was burdened with the task, rather the responsibility, of proving the 1996 season was no fluke, that the Huskies were intending to be a perennial fixture in the national scene. As Wilson noted at the time, 'We want to defy the odds. Nobody expects you to get back to where you were after a year like that and losing the personnel that we did.'

But the pollsters must have thought it possible, or they were merely showing their respect for Wilson's coaching ability, or they remembered that the Huskies had five seniors back who had helped carry the program to its early success, because the 1997 Husky team began the season ranked fourth nationally. UW's third-straight 50-win season (50-19) wasn't terribly glamorous: just one double-digit winning streak (12 games), no regular-season tournament titles, a third-place finish in the Pac-10 (16-11), and without the honor of hosting a regional tournament. Yet the Huskies remained in the top 10 and gelled as a team at the right time of the year, the playoffs. The final two weeks of the season were spent in Oklahoma, the first at regionals in Norman and the second in Oklahoma City at the CWS. The Huskies won five straight games, including upsets over No. 2 South Carolina and No. 3 Iowa. But it was a familiar nemesis, UCLA, that ended UW's improbable season with a pair of one-run losses to prevent a second-straight trip to the national championship game.

Same story, second verse in 1998. Gone were 13 players in the past two years who had brought UW to this level. Back were but two seniors and three juniors from the 'early years.' Wilson would end up starting seven freshmen and sophomores almost every game, proving her preseason notion: 'This team is truly the start of the next generation.' But by this time in the history of the program, most fans didn't stop to consider the youth of the current team, or that the program had fielded just five before it. They had been spoiled by great, sometimes improbable results. They had grown to expect it. And Washington continued to provide. Gone were the heavy hitters of yesteryear. Virtually every team offensive statistic was lower than every previous season but the first. Instead, relying on a pitching staff whose considerable talents were overshadowed only by its formation of a selfless staff, UW lost just four games before the Pac-10 season and then finished second in the league (19-9). After breezing through the regional tournament it hosted, UW arrived at the semifinals of the College World Series with a 2-1 record and handed Fresno State its first loss in the tournament. Washington needed but a single win over the Bulldogs to get to the title bout. But the eventual champs got the best of the Huskies, who began and ended the season ranked third in the nation.

Wilson compared the 1999 team with the 1995 squad: talented enough to compete for the national title, and young enough to do it again the next year. The only difference was the later version was more experienced. Every returnee had competed in the CWS in each of her seasons, and one had started the championship game in 1996. Wilson strove to temper the pressure with this philosophy: 'If you wish to be good, there are expectations. The sooner you learn to perceive those as compliments rather than burdens, the better off you'll be.' Beginning the season ranked third and poised behind the second-best team ERA in the nation, the Huskies placed third in the Pac-10 (15-12). But, after hosting and winning another regional, Washington in effect played a second Pac-10 season - in the College World Series. The Huskies won its first three games of the Series by three runs each - all against Pac-10 opponents - and advanced to the championship game. But a fourth league foe, UCLA, withstood a fierce Washington rally in the seventh inning to win by a single run, 3-2.Logic would have it, then, that the 2000 team - with but one player having graduated - would finally win the last game of the season and have its day on the victor's stand. Before the year began, Wilson marveled at the intensity the team brought to fall practice. 'I have never had a team come back and feel like it picked up where it left off. It's like we never left the field ... I remember thinking that no class could replace the class of '96 and what they did for the program. But this group has solidified Washington as a force in college softball.'

The pollsters agreed with the logic, placing UW at the top of the rankings almost the entire season after beginning the year at No. 2. And the Huskies demanded respect with its near-perfect season. Despite opponents constantly gunning to knock off the top-ranked team, Washington won all six of their regular-season tournaments and the Pac-10 championship (17-4), losing just nine times while winning the most games (62) in program history. The 2000 Huskies set or tied more than 90 individual or team records, placed second in the nation in attendance with an average of 1,497, and scored more than five times the number of runs they allowed. Ten players also ended up sharing the team's 50 individual honors, while its defense allowed just one run in 26 innings of regional tournament play in Seattle.

But logic doesn't always have its way in athletics. For just one week all season, the Huskies were flat. For a few short days, the Huskies were not sharp. Frustration perhaps peaks for coaches and athletes when their one sluggish stretch occurs in the contests leading up to the championship game. During the week of the College World Series, Washington battled a severe weather storm that delayed a game 13 hours, a swelling storm of anticipation and expectations swirling about them, and a storm of early-scoring opponents. It was that final storm that prematurely ended UW's 2000 season tied for fifth at the Series for arguably the best team in the nation and indisputably the best to wear a UW softball uniform.

The 2001 team again had huge shoes to fill. Dubbed a rebuilding year, the roster held more freshmen (10) than all upperclassmen combined (9). Half of the 2000 team was gone, including the second senior class to have played in the College World Series every year. Just four players had regular starting experience. After three years of relying on pitching, this group needed to provide offensive support to a staff of three that had pitched a combined 64.1 innings of collegiate ball ... before the most experienced suffered a career-ending injury prior to the season beginning. But, with the odds stacked against them, last year's Huskies looked to exceed expectations rather than simply live up to them.

That they did. Many wondered how far they would slip in the Pac-10 standings. Others could even envision an end to their streak of playing in the NCAA tournament. Those onlookers, though, had forgotten about the pedigree of these Dawgs. The Huskies turned in gusty performance after gusty performance and tied for third in the Pac-10 (11-10), keeping alive UW's string of eight straight top-four finishes. The strength of the Pac-10 can be summed up with this: the league has won 14 of the 19 national championships. But its recent depth is equally as impressive: all eight programs have competed in the NCAA tournament for the past two years. The league missed that mark by a single squad in 2001, but the blemish was not caused by the University of Washington. The Huskies traveled to Norman, Okla., for regionals and what the team hoped would be a repeat performance of 1997. But UW could not get past host and defending national champion Oklahoma, who handed the Huskies a pair of losses to end its season in which they continually showed improvement, tenacity and resolve.

The mission for that first Husky team was to set a standard of excellence for each successive team to follow. They have. Wilson makes sure her players represent their state, university and program with class, both on and off the field. She preaches the value of hard work and teamwork. But she also presents a challenge that is more personal, more important, and hopefully more satisfying - but likely more difficult: for each player to learn to represent herself with honor and respect. As Wilson described: 'From the first moments we meet a recruit until the last days of a student-athlete's career ...We explain that never again will they work so hard with one group of people to achieve a common goal. It is that unity which guides our team through the hard work, the trials, the challenges and the failures that occur, not only in college athletics, but also in those years between the ages of 18-22, in which finding oneself as a person presents an even greater challenge.'

May the celebration continue.

The author, Jana Hunter, is co-owner of TwoJay! Enterprises, a creative services company in Seattle. She served as the Husky softball SID from 1998-2000.

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