2010 Husky Softball Season Preview
Feb. 9, 2010
The saying goes that it's harder to stay at the top than it is to get to there.
The Washington softball program might have a legitimate argument for that being a theory with some major holes in it.
The Huskies had one of the longest journeys to the top of the softball world, going 16 years, eight Women's College World Series appearances and 15 empty trips to the NCAA postseason before finally raising the National Championship trophy last June.
Now, with the 16-year title drought behind them, the Huskies turn their attention to the challenge of doing it all over again. Staying hungry, staying healthy and staying humble in the face of a new pressure as the team to beat will be the goal of a team that graduated seven seniors but still retains the key piece in the puzzle: National Player of the Year Danielle Lawrie.
Like the Husky program itself, Lawrie had so much to prove in 2009. Could she bounce back from a disappointing Olympic experience with Canada? Could she get her team over the hump after a crushing defeat in the 2007 semifinals? And could she become the first National Player of the Year to also win a National Championship?
Yes, yes and yes. Already having carved her name into the UW, Pac-10 and NCAA record books, now the question is, what can she do for an encore?
Statistically speaking, Lawrie's numbers might not reach the level they did in 2009 when she was, for the most part, a one-woman pitching staff. But a healthy and rested Lawrie could go a long way in 2010 as some much-needed depth to the staff will allow her to pace herself throughout the season.
And while the Huskies lost a lot offensively and leadership-wise with their seven departed seniors, including three-time All-American Ashley Charters, All Region designated player Ashlyn Watson and All-Pac-10 catcher Alicia Blake, the Huskies are excited about their freshmen sluggers not to mention College World Series All-Tournament selections Kimi Pohlman, Niki Williams and Morgan Stuart, who have another year under their belts. Additionally, 2007 All-American Jenn Salling will spend her first full year in Seattle after a half-season in 2009 in which she rounded into form in postseason play and gave Husky fans a lot to be excited about in 2010.
'We are officially over with 2009,' sixth-year head coach Heather Tarr said. 'It was a great year and fun to celebrate but we are officially into the2010 season. We obviously enter with a big target on our back but we embrace it and we're proud to have the No. 1 ranking. The expectation of this program is to always be at the top. Last year we started at 15th and 21st in the rankings and no one really knew what our team was about. The starting ranking for every year is based on the last year though. No one has seen our team this year and we haven't either so it will be fun to see how it works out.
'We have a great group of 12 returners and when you have an experienced group of women who know what it's like to win a national championship, you trust that they understand there's no messing around,' Tarr continued. 'The hardest thing for us was letting 2009 go. Just as when you have a tough season you have to let it go, when you have a great season you have to let it go too and I think our student-athletes have done a great job of managing that aspect of the game.'
While there were big expectations for Lawrie heading into the 2009 season after a year off from the college game, few foresaw the kind of season the junior put together, which was one of the finest in NCAA history. But the numbers still don't do justice to how Lawrie put the team on her back over the final month of the season, all while battling an injury few even knew about.
With a pair of freshmen pitchers behind her still adjusting to the college level, Lawrie had to assume more of a one-woman wrecking ball role than anticipated. And the early pressure finally caught up to the ace midway through the season as Lawrie developed a stress fracture in her pitching forearm.
But thanks to the UW trainers and doctors and some well-timed rest, Lawrie showed remarkable healing power and was back out on the field for Pac-10 play. The rest is history. From the no-hitters against UCLA and Arizona in conference play to the 15-inning marathon NCAA Regional game - which in hindsight could arguably be the most important win in program history - to her domination of Florida in the Championship Series, Lawrie left no questions about the magnitude of her skill and her heart.
This year, Lawrie expects to see less time in the circle in the preseason as well as in Pac-10 play, where the conference format has shifted to three-game series against one team over a single weekend. Thankfully, Lawrie has some help from sophomores Felecia Harris and Jenna Clifton, who have a year of experience at the Division I level under their belts. While both took their lumps during their freshmen seasons, they also showed glimpses of being able to give Lawrie some time off in both pre-season and conference play.
Even more exciting for the team is the addition of a talented freshman who should give UW a deep staff in 2010, All-State selection Baily Harris.
'We have a number one in Danielle and a No. 2 in all three of them,' Tarr said of the back-ups to Lawrie. 'It's their job to win a spot but it's also their job to help support Danielle and this team and basically buy innings. That's ultimately the goal and we're better off than last year in that sense.'
The biggest void to fill will be behind the plate as the Huskies lost four-year starter Alicia Blake, who provided more than just a physical presence. The rapport she shared with Lawrie was crucial down the stretch as the two were on the same wave length through much of the postseason, making life easy for the All-American pitcher.
The catcher Lawrie has the best relationship with at this point is fellow senior Amanda Fleischman, who has been the Huskies' utility player extraordinaire over the past few seasons. She spent some quality innings behind the plate last year catching for Lawrie while giving Blake a rest and could emerge as Lawrie's favorite target.
But challenging for time as well will be a pair of freshmen in Shawna Wright and Hooch Fagaly, who could be known as much for their power hitting prowess as for their catching before their careers are over. How much they play and where will depend on how much of a connection they develop with Lawrie, ultimately the most important factor for a catcher working with the nation's top hurler.
'I looked back at last year and we are so blessed with depth that we had probably 20 different line-ups during the season and even at times in the postseason,' Tarr said. 'We have two-to-three gals who can catch. Amanda has experience and understands the game. Shawna is very similar demeanor-wise to Alicia Blake which is very good for someone like Danielle who knows what she wants to do. Hooch will probably be a back up to Shawna but we definitely don't have a set lineup or a set catcher.'
While the infield will be missing a key piece in on-field and off-field leader Ashley Charters, plenty of experience and talent is back to overcome the absence of the three-time All-American.
'We'll miss Ashley a lot, but what's good about this year's team is we'll have a lot of power,' Tarr said. 'It will be similar to the early 2000s when we had the Jaime Clarks and Kristen Riveras. I'm not saying anyone's going to be Jaime Clark or Kristen Rivera, but from 1-18 on this team, we've had to buy a lot more softballs this year.'
The left side of UW's infield could be one of the best in the nation in 2010 with a pair of upperclassmen just starting to come into their own. After showing flashes of brilliance in a strong freshman year and then an up-and-down sophomore year, Morgan Stuart put it all together in the Women's College World Series, putting on a show in Oklahoma City.
The third baseman - who also played brilliantly at shortstop last year before Salling's arrival - had the best week of her career at the WCWS, starting with a thrilling walk-off single in a 1-0 eight-inning win over defending champion Arizona State, which sent UW into the semifinals. There, all she did was set a World Series record by going 5-for-5 in the first semifinal, followed by a 1-for-3 effort with a home run in the elimination game. She continued her hot hitting in the Championship Series, finishing the week with a .476 average in the six games, with a World Series-high 10 hits and record four doubles in 21 at-bats en route to being named to the All-Tournament team.
Now an upperclassman, Stuart will have to adjust to being someone the Huskies rely on day in and day out, a responsibility she will share with her fellow left-side infielder, Jenn Salling. Husky fans are eager to see the 2007 All-American play a full season with the Huskies after showing up a tad rusty midway through last season.
While it took Salling a month to get her timing back, once she did she showed the softball world she hasn't lost a step since earning First Team All-American honors as a freshman at Oregon. After sitting out a year to play with Lawrie on the Canadian Olympic Team, Salling had a rough re-introduction to the college softball world, getting thrown into the mix in the always-difficult Pac-10 schedule. After starting 0-for-12 and heading into postseason with a .146 average, Salling clicked into high gear when it counted most, batting .571 in the NCAA Regionals and .415 overall in the postseason, providing not just clutch hits along the way but also some stellar defensive plays that saved the Huskies throughout the three-week journey.
'Jenn understands what she can do within the game of softball. She's an internationally seasoned player, she's a mature player and we expect her to be as good, or better, than she's shown she can be,' Tarr said. 'If you looked at her stats last year, you'd think, `what is this girl doing batting third?' But then you look at her postseason stats and her execution and you see what this kid is all about.'
With the left side nailed down, the right side will see some tweaking after Charters' departure. Figuring to see most of the time at first base is another player who broke out during the World Series, sophomore Niki Williams. As a freshman batting in the nine-hole, Williams caught everyone off guard when she ripped a three-run home run in the opening 3-1 win over Georgia. She then caught even herself off guard two games later when she set a World Series record with seven RBI in the first semifinal -launching a grand slam and three-run home run - to also set a series record with 10 RBI for the week.
Now a year older and wiser, Williams should move up from that nine spot and be a consistent threat in the Husky lineup. She'll also look to be a leader on the field to a handful of freshmen, who will look to repeat her rookie year success.
The edge on taking Charters' place right now appears to go to freshman Jerrin Fa'asua, a good-things-come-in-small-packages type of player. The quiet Californian packs a punch in her bat and had a stellar fall for the Huskies and will add speed, power and versatility to the lineup.
A mix of players will look to break into the field, including sophomore Felecia Harris, who could see some time at first base along with the freshman Fagaly. Both players have bats that could force them into the lineup, whether that be on the field or at the designated player position. Fleischman is always capable of filling in anywhere around the infield, while versatile freshmen Maggie Wagner, Shawna Wright and Amanda Fitzsimmons - the 2009 Gatorade State Player of the Year for Washington - could also see time on the infield.
The outfield seems to be the most consistent spot on the field for the Huskies, as three starters return in All-Region left fielder Kimi Pohlman, defensive specialist and centerfielder Alyson McWherter and 2007 All-Pac-10 right fielder Bailey Stenson.
An uncertain spot heading into last year, the outfield rounded into a consistent corp led by McWherter, who made several highlight plays throughout the season, from two robbed home runs in the same game during the first tournament of the season to an ESPN-highlight reel catch at the World Series.
Head coach Heather Tarr and outfield coach Gina Carbonatto were hopeful, meanwhile, that they could turn raw talent Kimi Pohlman into a star eventually, but they didn't plan on her becoming an All-American caliber talent in one season. Pohlman turned out to be a clutch hitter and a nearly impossible-to-stop force on the base paths, as she stands to fill in nicely for Charters at the top of the lineup.
Displaying speed and power - not to mention a flare for the dramatic as evidenced by her game-winning hit off All-American Stacey Nelson of Florida just three weeks into the season - Pohlman has already earned national respect, being named one of 50 players to the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year watch list.
Stenson, meanwhile, will look to bounce back from a down year in 2009 to regain the form she showed in 2008 when she filled in for Charters and Lauren Greer after they used redshirt years. Stenson led the team in hits and batted .332 to earn All-Pac-10 honors, but struggled to regain that form in an early platoon role with Greer last season.
With the job hers to lose in 2010, Stenson looks to regain her speed and power combo at the plate and hold down the right field spot as a senior.
Hoping to break into that solid threesome in the outfield will be a pair of sophomores in Taylor Smith and Jenna Clifton. Smith surprised everyone with her debut in the Red Desert Classic last year, when she stepped up to the plate in a pinch hitting role in the final game of the opening weekend and ripped a home run to centerfield in her first collegiate at-bat. The local product followed with another pinch-hit home run later in the season and will look to add more excitement in 2010. Clifton, meanwhile, was forced to focus on pitching last year with the staff thin. With a deeper pitching staff in 2010, Clifton could see more time doing what she was brought to Washington to do: hit and play the outfield.
Junior Ashley Tuiasosopo has also waited patiently in the wings and could see more playing time in 2010 along with - who else? - Amanda Fleischman, who could play as many as eight positions if the Huskies needed her to.
Not to be forgotten for her bat is Lawrie, who was held out of the batting lineup for most of the first half of last season to protect her pitching arm. But when she finally entered the lineup on a consistent basis midway through Pac-10 play, Lawrie provided herself with some help on the scoreboard, belting seven home runs and driving in 30 - including three home runs in the postseason.
Lawrie might hit for herself when she's pitching and might also see time at designated player when she's not, but she also might take a seat to give more at-bats to sophomore Felecia Harris and freshman Hooch Fagaly, who look to round into the intimidating power hitters Tarr hopes they will become.
After a grueling 2009 schedule that prepared them well for the College World Series, but also nearly backfired as teams started catching up to Lawrie, the Huskies will take things down a notch in 2010. While UW can't avoid the always daunting Pac-10 schedule, they do face a lighter load in the preseason, taking on just four teams ranked in the preseason top 25. That should give Lawrie a chance to ease her way into top form, rather than hitting break-neck speed in the opening weeks as she did last year.
And with six freshmen on board, the Huskies hope they can get some confidence rolling up and down their lineup in 2010 after facing some of the nation's best pitchers early in 2009. The Huskies know as much as anyone how difficult winning a national championship can be. It took 16 years to win one but they certainly don't plan on waiting that long for a second.
'I don't like the word repeat. Every time you try to recreate something great or fun in your life, it's never the same,' Tarr said. 'When you say repeat it's as if you're trying to bring the 19 women you had last year back and do it again. If that was the case, then repeat would be the motto. What we're saying this year is, `we want to win a national championship.' It's not `repeat,' it's not `back-to-back'. We're trying to win a national championship and find a way to do it with this team because it's clearly not the same team.'