Softball Opens 10th Season With The Same High Expectations

Jan. 18, 2002

It may seem rote to say the goals for the 10th season of the University of Washington softball program remain the same - to win the conference title and compete for a national championship. Every team in the nation could say that.

After all, the 2002 Husky squad, though talented, has 10 more freshmen and sophomores than it does juniors and seniors, and, after battling to a third-place finish in the Pac-10 last year, became the first UW team in six years to fall just short of making the College World Series.

But deception and a complete immersion in the team-first philosophy - the two strongest traits of the Huskies on their diamond anniversary - could be exactly what the squad needs to meet the challenge.

'With the youth and inexperience of last year's team, the coaching staff looked at reality, figured out exactly how many games we would have to win to be in contention for postseason and started counting them down with the team,' said UW head coach Teresa Wilson. 'But as the season progressed and the team developed as quickly and effectively as it did, we ripped those numbers off the wall, saying, `It's not about just getting to postseason. It's about going back to the Series.'

'To watch those kids work, mature, form such a cohesive team and become extremely determined was very, very rewarding. And then at the end of it all, to see the disappointment on the faces of those freshmen, well beyond their years, when they realized they were the first class in six years not to go to the Series ....They are determined not to let that happen again.'

While the team's youth and inexperience were central issues a year ago, this season Wilson points to her squad's selfless attitude, resolve and deceptive experience as the starting point to its success.

'This team has a hunger and a commitment to team above self,' Wilson said. 'For the first time in a few years, we don't have many individuals. We've had some amazing talent in the past, but it was sometimes hard to get that team concept back to where it needs to be. This group is back to that point. There is not a single player on this team that is more worried about themselves than they are about the team, which usually leads to a good product.'

'The other thing about this team is they were forced to grow up in a hurry. Before last season began, just four of our 19 players had started a collegiate game, so a lot of the kids were thrown into the fire early and often. They are unusually seasoned for their age.'

Gone from last year's team are standouts Kim DePaul, Kelly Hauxhurst and Christie Rosenblad, a trio of four-year starters, who combined to start in all but six of the 270 games from 1998 to 2001. Despite the loss, Wilson doesn't feel that the team will fall short in the leadership department.

'While we lost a tremendous amount in experience and consistency of play, Kelly, Kim and Christie were all players who led more by example, than by being outspoken. This year provides an opportunity for some new kids to become more vocal and develop their leadership skills. We have some young ladies on this team who have amazing leadership potential. I am very excited to see that leadership blossom and grow.'

Leading this year's team, which includes just four upperclassmen on its 18-player roster, is a trio of captains including junior catcher Amy Hanson (Mt. Vernon, Wash.), junior shortstop Jaime Clark (Tustin, Calif.) and sophomore pitcher Tia Bollinger (Santa Ana, Calif.).

'The strength of our captains lies in their collective leadership traits. They are an amazing combination that will provide such a strong foundation for this team to build around,' Wilson said. 'And we have a team that is so ready to grow and add to that foundation, which is so exciting for us to watch as a staff.'

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of this year's Washington softball team:

Infielders

A focal point of the team's success this season will once again center around the play of two-time All-American Clark, who not only gives the Huskies one of the most talented hitters in the country, but also has the ability to make the spectacular look routine at shortstop.

A year ago, Clark proved, once again, that she is one of the nation's finest players. She led the Husky team in nearly every offensive category despite playing through injury, and shouldering a majority of the pressure and responsibility for carrying the offense.

'Few people could realize, or appreciate, the pressure on Jaime Clark to carry this team last season,' Wilson said. 'Nor could they understand that she was expected, and more importantly, she expected herself to do so, even though she spent most of the season nursing a back so sore at times, that bending over was a chore.'

Even though the road was tough, and consistency was challenged, Clark and the Huskies never gave up.

'I have watched Jaime play, or have coached her, for more than five years now, and can honestly say that I have never seen her give less than 100 percent effort on the field every single time she sets foot on that field,' Wilson said.

'Believe me, that is a rare characteristic in a player. And the result - she and the young team around her grew and developed, and became the foundation for what may become the best Husky softball team yet.'

During the summer, Clark left little doubt that she was healthy and back to top form offensively and defensively, starting every game at shortstop for one of the two USA Softball National Teams. Clark helped power the USA Blue squad to a gold medal at the Pan Am Games Qualifier in Venezuela, leading the tournament field with a .483 batting average, including 19 of the team's 63 RBI's.

'She had a great summer with USA Softball,' Wilson said. 'I hope they realize they have something special in Jaime.'

Besides Clark, one of the other two returning starters in the infield is sophomore Amanda Oleson (Agoura Hills, Calif.), who adds a stabilizing and vocal presence at first base. As a freshman in 2001, Oleson displayed her versatility, starting at four different positions, including first base, third base, shortstop and right field.

'Amanda plays first base for us, but she could be an All-American in the outfield and could probably play shortstop for 90 percent of the teams in America,' Wilson said. 'She doesn't play outfield for us because she has such an amazing presence on the infield.

'Amanda's field personality includes such a fiery intensity, focus, and passion, that she creates a presence, much like that of (former UW All-American) Angie Marzetta,' Wilson said. 'That presence has the greatest impact when she is in the infield. She has the ability to intimidate opposing teams with her presence at first base. She is aggressive, demonstrates great anticipation, and communicates and directs plays exceptionally well from first base.'

Offensively, Oleson opened her freshman campaign by putting together a 15-game hitting streak, the second longest in Washington softball history, beginning with a 3-for-5 performance in just her fifth collegiate game. Oleson then slapped and chopped her way to a .370 batting average my mid-March, despite playing most of the season with a broken finger.

It was not until an early April doubleheader with Portland State that Oleson revealed her ability to hit the long ball, launching a pair of two-run home runs. From there, the NCAA regional all-tournament selection tallied at least one hit in 18 of her final 22 games.

'It is my opinion that Amanda could be the best lead-off hitter in the country,' Wilson said. 'She can bunt, slap, and hit for power. Because of her versatility, she can be equally intimidating from the lead-off position, or complementing Jaime Clark and Kristen Rivera in the middle of the line-up.'

The Huskies also have a capable first baseman in second-year player Callie Bergan (Issaquah, Wash.). Bergan, who saw playing time in nine games as a freshman, has the potential to contribute with a powerful bat, consistent defense, and growing leadership skills.

'Callie is the type of player every team needs,' Wilson said. 'She is a selfless player who always puts the team before herself.

'Callie is a player who has an excellent insight to the big picture, and a maturity level that allows her to keep things in perspective. For this reason, she has a very calming effect on this team. She is an incredible student of the game, and enjoys the challenge of breaking it down to identify what produces success. She does a great job of helping keep the team focused on our end goal - getting back to the College World Series - and pushes herself, and her teammates every single day to realize that goal.'

The Huskies final returnee in the infield is Hanson, a converted second baseman, who moved behind the plate to start 55 games at catcher in 2001.

'Amy became a catcher by necessity, because she was the one with the open mind who was willing to do whatever it took to help this team win,' Wilson said. 'Amy is the epitome of quiet leadership. She is the person people want to follow.

'Amy is excited about the opportunity to practice every single day - and it is contagious. She has something special that is hard to put a finger on, until you spend time around her. She is selfless. She puts the team first - every single day. She takes it upon herself to make her teammates better, every single day. Amy has the ability to see the big picture and apply it to the current situation. What she has is rare.'

Hanson will be joined behind the plate this year by freshman Kristen Rivera (Perris, Calif.), whose presence will be felt immediately.

'Kristen is someone you will be hearing a lot about,' Wilson said. 'Kristen is a player who is mature beyond her years - both in talent and demeanor. She has a presence that few players her age possess. Defensively, Kristen has great presence, an incredible arm, and great vision of the field. Offensively, she is the missing link in a dominating three-four combo in the line-up with Jaime Clark.'

With the loss of DePaul and Rosenblad, the biggest question in the infield comes at second and third base.

Freshman Kathy Fiske (Temecula, Calif.), a prep All-American out of Linfield High School, is expected to hold down the corner position. Known for her defensive skills, Fiske appears ready to step in at third base, a position that has been occupied for the most part by just two players, DePaul and former standout Heather Tarr, over the past seven years.

'Kathy Fiske has an incredible presence, intensity and focus,' Wilson said. 'Defensively, she has great hands, a great glove, instinct and anticipation. She has no fear, and welcomes a challenge.

'Offensively, she is going to surprise some people. As she becomes more and more comfortable with the system, I believe she will become a dominant force.'

Two relative newcomers, sophomore Nicole Wicks (Renton, Wash.) and freshman Stephanie Nicholson (Tucson, Ariz.) will be counted on to fill the void at second base.

Wicks, a shortstop out of high school, saw action in 19 games as a freshman, mainly as a pinch runner. Nicholson, meanwhile, was a shortstop at Flowing Wells High School, which claimed a pair of state championships her sophomore and junior seasons. She capped her youth career with an ASA 'A' National Championship last summer.

Outfielders

The 2002 Husky outfield will have more depth than ever before, with great options both offensively and defensively.

Sophomore Rita Roach (Norwalk, Calif.) returns to claim her spot in centerfield. As a freshman, Roach went error free through the team's first 55 games. On offense, she led off for the Huskies, scoring team-high 11 game-winning runs, despite playing injured for the second half of the season.

'Rita is like a good movie,' Wilson said. 'Get some popcorn, a comfortable chair, and just sit back, watch, wait to be amazed, and enjoy the show. Rita has amazing instincts in every aspect of this game - as a hitter, in the outfield, and on the base paths.'

As the lone senior on this year's Washington softball team, Becky Simpson (Tumwater, Wash.) makes the move to left field, after earning a spot in the starting line-up a year ago. Simpson, who started 50 games in right field and at designated player, ranked third on the team in multi-hit games (14) last season.

'Becky is such a catalyst on this team,' Wilson said. 'She makes things happen, and will most likely be counted on to do just that from the lead-off position this season. Becky has incredible speed, can slap or hit, and is one of the best base runners to ever put on a Husky uniform.'

Sophomores Nicki Holt (Camarillo, Calif.), and Megan Owen (Spokane, Wash.) should also see playing time in right and center field respectively.

Holt was one of the team's primary pinch runners in 2001, appearing in 22 games, but logging only one at bat. This year, Wilson sees Holt's offensive game changing a bit.

'Nicki has always been a slapper, but she is working very hard right now to increase her ability to hit for power,' Wilson said.

Owen was the consummate utility player last year as she could play the infield, outfield and saw time pitching. This year she will see playing time in center field, after coming to the UW a year ago as a middle infielder.

'Megan made huge strides over the summer,' Wilson said. 'She has come a long way in understanding the offensive philosophy here at Washington, and has shown us some real pop with the bat this fall. Defensively, she is extremely aggressive, possesses a great arm, and very good execution.'

The Huskies will have numerous options in right field this year. Each player will bring different strengths to the table.

Junior Traci Tawney (Fall City, Wash.) started 27 games in 2001 in right field and at first base. Known for outstanding defensive skills, Tawney will add to her game in 2002.

'Traci will see most of her time in the outfield this year, where she has the capability of making the nearly impossible play look routine,' said Wilson. 'While I accuse her of being a fungo bat with clothes (because of her slight build), she has displayed power with the bat that will surprise a lot of people this year.'

Sophomore Courtney Jeffries (Eugene, Ore.) made her presence known in 2001 at the most critical time of the season - the NCAA Regionals. She hit .600 with eight RBI's and a 1.000 slugging percentage to earn all-tournament honors.

'Courtney is the consummate student of the game,' Wilson said. 'She has been one of the catalysts on this team to accept, and put complete trust and unconditional belief in the philosophy behind the foundation of the program. Through that process, she has become an incredible offensive threat. She has such good bat control that she is hard to fool as a hitter, can it to all fields, and displays occasional power.'

The Huskies power-hitting option in right field is six-foot Shawna Norris (Littleton, Colo.), who appeared in 24 games last season, in right field, first base and as a pinch hitter.

'Combine Shaw-na's potential to hit for power and to hit the gaps, with her speed on offense, and then switch half-innings, and add her potential range, speed, and arm strength in the outfield, and you see just how intimidating we expect Shawna to become,' Wilson said.

Pitchers

One of the biggest concerns at this time a year ago was the experience of a Husky pitching staff, which lost a pair of All-Americans and entered the season with a combined career record of 2-0.

Bollinger, as it turned out, was the one to accept the challenge, and in the process earned All-America honors as a freshman, while recording 36 of the team's 40 wins.

'I can't say enough about Tia's performance last year,' Wilson said. 'She handled the pressure, expectations, and challenges with a maturity far exceeding her years of experience. She too, had to nurse a bad back through much of the season, and yet she never let that become an excuse.'

Bollinger set school records for most wins (36) and most innings pitched (287), while tying the mark for most games started with 39. She also became the second consecutive UW player to earn Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year honors, as the only freshman on the all-conference first team.

The accolades continued, as Bollinger joined Clark and DePaul on the USA Blue National Team, appearing in eight games, with a 4-0 record and 42 strikeouts in 28 innings.

'Last year, Tia was an All-American with a drop and a change-up,' Wilson said. This year, she's added some pitches and continues to gain maturity and presence. Tia is a great communicator, and is keenly aware of her surroundings and those involved. She takes great care to ensure that her teammates work to communicate, and that they are on the same page. She is a pitcher, much like a great quarterback, who her teammates have great confidence in, and like to work hard for. She will be another in the line of great pitchers here at Washington.'

While Bollinger's key to success may be her ability to keep hitters off-balance, freshman Ashley Boek (Redding, Calif.) can over power hitters.

'Ashley just flat throws heat,' Wilson said. 'She is a power pitcher who can also make the ball break.'

Boek, a 5-8 right-hander, earned preseason prep All-America honors as a senior at Shasta High School.

The team's other newcomer to the pitching staff is Oklahoma native Leslie Scott (Edmond, Okla.). Scott, another right-hander, helped Casady High School to a pair of top-five finishes at the Oklahoma State Tournament.

'Leslie has very good control of her pitches, has good movement on the ball, and is working every day to take her game to the next level,' Wilson said. 'Leslie, Ashley, and Tia are going to make an exceptional staff.'

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