2009 Husky Softball Preview
Jan. 29, 2009
Talent, health, experience and hunger. The 2009 Washington Huskies appear to have all the ingredients for a national championship run.
For the first time in her five years as head coach, Heather Tarr has a team of players who have spent a full four years in her system and know what she expects and demands. A total of 10 players remain from the 2007 squad which reached the NCAA semifinals and they have a hunger to get back there and earn the one prize that has eluded the Huskies in 16 highly-successful years of the program: a National Championship.
Included in that group of 10 are seven seniors, two of which have been with Tarr since her first season in 2005 when the team missed the Women's College World Series by one game. The group got over the hump in 2007, learning valuable lessons the veterans hope to carry on to the eight players who have not yet had a taste of Super Regional or World Series success.
'This year is kind of the culmination of what we've been building since I got here. The players know what we expect, know what playing here is all about and know what it's like to go to the World Series,' Tarr, who has a 142-91-1 record at UW, said. 'My first few years here, we hadn't gone to the World Series so we had to reiterate to them, `This is what it's like to get there.' In 2007, we were fortunate enough to get there so now the leaders know what it's like.
'That's what's so exciting about this season is our team expects to be successful and they expect to go to the World Series and they know what it takes to get there,' Tarr continued. 'The veterans are able to pass along to the young players what it takes. They're showing them the way, not necessarily having to tell them, but they're able to model it for the younger players.'
The Huskies earned their 15th consecutive postseason berth in 2007 without the services of three starters - including two All-Americans - who redshirted for various reasons. Two-time All-American infielder Ashley Charters had hip surgery prior to the season while All-Pac-10 outfielder Lauren Greer had a shoulder injury which required surgery 14 games into the season. On top of those injuries, the team was already missing All-American pitcher Danielle Lawrie, who redshirted the 2008 season to play for the Canadian National Team in the 2008 Olympic Games.
With all three players back to full strength, a group of 10 returning players who had the opportunity to step up and earn valuable experience in their absence and one of Tarr's best recruiting classes in her tenure, the Huskies look poised to make a run at the national title after being at the doorstep in 2007.
'I think our team knows what the big picture is all about,' Tarr said. 'They understand you have to play well in February. Our schedule is tough and they understand it's going to prepare us to play well in the end. They know how it is to be in an if-game at a regional. They know what Super Regionals are all about. We're going to have experiences playing on the road, like when we play in Alabama, where it will be a Regional- or Super Regional-kind of environment. Our team understands what October, November, December and January mean to May and that's a nice thing to have.'
The most important piece of the puzzle back in place for the Huskies in 2009 is junior All-American pitcher Danielle Lawrie, who returns after a year of hard work preparing for and playing in the 2008 Olympic Games. The last time Lawrie was on the mound for the Huskies, she was throwing a no-hitter and a one-hitter in back-to-back games to open the 2007 Women's College World Series to put UW one win away from the championship series before falling to Pac-10 rival and eventual National Champions, Arizona.
After striking out a school-record 457 batters in 2007, Lawrie will be back in 2009 on a mission, looking for redemption.
'We're excited for Danielle to come back more mature and more mentally tough,' Tarr said. 'She's older, wiser and more experienced and she's got a couple more things she's added to her pitching repertoire. She's been working on some things mentally, as well, that will help her conserve some energy and be a good leader in the circle.'
Lawrie will not have to carry the pitching load in 2009, thanks to promising freshman Felecia Harris, who has been working hard in the fall to help form a 1-2 punch with Lawrie.
'Felecia has made the adjustments with her speed this fall and has gained probably five miles-per-hour. It's been nice to see her develop,' Tarr said. 'The more consistent she becomes, the more helpful it will be for our team. We look for her to play a major role on our pitching staff.'
'Jenna has been developing nicely as a No. 3,' Tarr commented. 'Lance has done a good job of helping her create a good foundation and build on it. Of all three pitchers, she probably has the tightest spin. That's something you either have or don't have. She's a competitive athlete and she fields her position really well so we'll put her in some situations where she'll be able to compete and do some good things.'
With two of the three pitchers having no college experience, the adjustment will be easier with two veteran catchers behind the plate. Senior All-Pac-10 selection Alicia Blake will carry most of the catching load in 2009, coming off the best season of her career in which she led the Huskies in batting average, slugging percentage and doubles and tied for the team lead in home runs. She also led the Pac-10 in runners caught stealing, throwing out 16 on the base paths.
'It's nice to have a veteran in Alicia Blake behind the plate for us,' said Tarr. 'She's pretty much caught the majority of innings the last couple years but had some time off from catching Danielle last year so I think it'll be good for her to get back in groove with her.'
Blake will earn some much-needed rest throughout the season thanks to utility-player-extraordinaire, Amanda Fleischman. The honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection started all 56 games for the Huskies last season at five different positions, including 14 behind the plate.
'Amanda is very versatile and valuable and she's a good leader,' Tarr said. 'She's just a very good athlete behind the plate so whether she catches Danielle or Felecia or Jenna is yet to be determined.'
The infield is anchored by senior two-time All-American Ashley Charters, who will be in the running for several national awards. Charters took last year off to repair an injured hip after a spectacular 2007 season in which she batted .391 and showed her speed and power, hitting seven home runs and stealing 36 bases. The leadoff hitter also rose to the occasion in crunch time, being named to the Women's College World Series All-Tournament team, hitting .364 with two doubles, three runs and three stolen bases in the team's four games in Oklahoma City.
'We have a veteran infield and Ashley Charters without question is our leader,' Tarr said. 'Whether she starts at shortstop every game or not doesn't indicate her ability to lead. She can lead from second base or shortstop, but it's her infield this year and she's going to take control of it as she sees necessary. In my opinion, she's one of the best two players in the country right now and she's been pretty underrated in the past. We're lucky she's healthy and able to contribute and go out on a good note.'
The Huskies will also expect big things from sophomore Morgan Stuart, who had a solid freshman season, leading the team in RBI and tying for the team lead in home runs en route to earning Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 honors.
'Morgan had a solid freshman year and it's nice to be able to look at her and know she's not a freshman anymore and be able to see her more as a veteran on this team,' Tarr said. 'She's a very composed player and has the ability to compete with Charters at shortstop. She does some different things than Ashley and has some different strengths but she's probably going to stay on the left side of the infield.'
Tarr will also look for big contributions from senior Ashlyn Watson, who came up big down the stretch for the Huskies, including a walk-off, two-run single in UW's 3-2 NCAA Regional-opening victory over Texas.
'Ashlyn's arm is finally healthy enough for her to play a major defensive role and her leadership capabilities are unlimited. She's a great field leader and overall leader for our program,' Tarr said. 'To have her as a leader on the dirt as opposed to just in the dugout now is going to benefit our team. I'm excited for her to contribute offensively and defensively this year.'
A freshman who could make an immediate impact is Niki Williams, who showed in the fall what she's capable of, hitting a grand slam in her first collegiate at-bat. She will compete for time at third and first base and should add some pop to the Husky lineup.
'Niki was probably our most pleasant surprise from the fall,' Tarr said. 'She's always played on very good club teams and done well at that level. Sometimes you get let down by freshmen when they come in and don't meet those expectations immediately, but she's come in and been able to fill those shoes as a big part of the freshman class. She has a powerful bat and is learning more about her swing but she's got a lot of good potential. She's a great person and a good teammate.'
Tarr will also try to find time for senior Jessica Ventoza, who has made huge strides after transferring from the junior college ranks two years ago. Likewise, fellow senior and transfer Dani Stuart played a key role at third base in 2007 and will look to do the same in 2009.
Amanda Fleischman will be able to fill in at first, third and shortstop, having what Tarr calls the most range on the team at third thanks to her large wing span. Freshman Felecia Harris could also compete for time at first base, while Alicia Blake will also spend time at first when she's not behind the plate.
'We're lucky this year that we have some power hitters who are going to compete for time at first,' Tarr said. 'Anytime you have a team where people are competing for time at first base because of their offensive capabilities, you're in a good place.'
Three-time All-American outfielder Gina Carbonatto will oversee a veteran group which will be crowded in 2009, with all three returning outfielders being joined by All-Pac-10 senior Lauren Greer, who will slowly make her way back after season-ending shoulder surgery last year. In her 14 games before shutting down, Greer showed her offensive potential, belting three home runs and leading the team with 11 RBI.
'You always trust Lauren because she's a veteran and she's always been able to perform in our outfield,' Tarr said. 'She's going to slowly get back in there and transition into a full-time defensive player after February.'
Until then, three veterans will look to hold down their spots while being challenged by a trio of freshmen. Senior Marnie Koziol and juniors Alyson McWherter and Bailey Stenson all return with a full season of experience together under their belt. McWherter and Stenson both played 55 of 56 games while Koziol started all 56 games in left field.
'Coach Carbonatto has done a good job of developing Alyson in the outfield for a couple years now,' said Tarr. 'She made some great plays at the end of the year at the NCAA Regional and came up with some big catches. She's got some good experience now under her belt. Bailey is probably our most well-rounded outfielder as far as getting good reads and jumps and she has good leadership capabilities and can manage an outfield.'
Koziol, meanwhile, has been holding down leftfield for three years and had a big year in 2008 with career highs in runs scored and stolen bases, ranking fourth in the conference in the latter category. Amanda Fleischman, who was sixth in the conference with 16 stolen bases, will also see time in the outfield, having the ability to play any of the three positions.
Three freshmen, along with sophomore Ashley Tuiasosopo, will look to break apart that group and get some valuable playing time. Jenna Clifton, Kimi Pohlman and Taylor Smith are freshmen Tarr sees lots of promise in.
'Jenna is very versatile and she can play pretty much anywhere on the field. She's not a very big person, but she swings the bat with a lot of bat speed and can do some good things. Kimi is capable of playing all three positions and Coach Carbonatto has been very pleased with her development and her raw skills as an outfielder. She's just a hair slower than Ashley Charters so that's neat to know we have two very, very fast individuals.'
THE DESIGNATED PLAYERS
With a crowded house in both the infield and outfield, Tarr will have the luxury of playing a lot of different hands to see who meshes best, while also trying out a handful of players at designated player.
The return of Danielle Lawrie not only gives the Huskies one of the best right arms in the country, but it also puts some pop back in the lineup as Lawrie bashed 10 home runs in 2007. When she's not playing first, Ashlyn Watson could also see time at DP, as will freshman Felecia Harris, who brings a big bat to UW.
'DP is going to be pretty competitive,' Tarr said. 'We know what Danielle's been able to do in the past so we're looking for her to bring in a few more runs than before. Felecia swings a pretty mighty bat too and she's a threat at the plate. We're happy to have her on our team and not have to face her.'
Lauren Greer will also see time at DP, especially early in the season while she recovers from shoulder surgery.
THE COACHING STAFF
While Tarr settles into her fifth season at her alma mater, three new coaches join the staff and will be ready to take the program to the next level. Outfield coach Gina Carbonatto, pitching coach Lance Glasoe and volunteer assistant J.T. D'Amico - who works with the infield - will bring a new energy to a veteran team. Additionally, Dru Hester, who played for the Huskies the last two years, will serve as a student assistant coach.
'The team has responded well to our staff and I think everyone really complements each other well,' Tarr said. 'Lance has done some good things with the pitchers and Gina has done a great job of establishing herself as a pretty tough outfield coach who knows what's she's expecting. Dru has been a nice addition as she knows what our system is all about. She knows what I want and expects so she's a good segue between the team and staff.'
As always, the Huskies will gain valuable experience playing in top pre-season tournaments before embarking on an always-adventurous Pac-10 season, arguably the best conference in the country.
Washington will face five of the eight teams that competed in the 2008 College World Series, three of which come from the Pac-10. In addition to defending national champion Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA, the Huskies will also take on CWS participants Florida and Alabama.
'We're excited to apply our team to the schedule. It's probably one of the toughest we've had since I've been here,' Tarr said. 'We always schedule a competitive pre-season and try to go to the most prestigious tournaments. We've been able to put a pretty good schedule together to prepare us for Pac-10 play and the postseason play.'
A difficult schedule will certainly prepare the team for a run to a national championship. But nothing can replace the experience of being there, something 10 players have done and hope to pass on to the underclassmen, something they also hope will burn deep enough within them to bring the first softball national championship to a program that has thirsted for one for 16 years.