UW's McWherter Juggles Softball, Army

May 27, 2010

By Gregg Bell
The Associated Press

SEATTLE - Alyson McWherter watched a sharp drive head her way. An NCAA tournament game was on the line.

Conventional wisdom called for top-ranked Washington's center fielder to stay back in that last inning, take a knee and let the ball land in front of her, play it safe. A single wouldn't ruin the shutout victory for Huskies star Danielle Lawrie against North Carolina last weekend. A risk and an extra-base hit could.

McWherter doesn't do conventional wisdom.

McWherter, who is one of the first Huskies athletes to become a military officer while on athletic scholarship since the war in Iraq began, who may be on a path to war, doesn't stay back.

If that was her nature, she'd be like many of her teammates. She'd be preparing for life after softball.

She wouldn't have juggled the competing demands of Division I athletics, ROTC and college course work for the last three years. With help and coordination from Huskies coach Heather Tarr, McWherter met with ROTC instructors to craft her own military program around softball.

She is weeks from becoming a lieutenant in the Army's medical services corps. She is heading to officer basic course in January, then has a report date of April to the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., a unit that has regularly deployed to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Michael Daniels, department chair for Washington's Army ROTC program, says it is 'very realistic' McWherter will be at war this time next year.

So, no, she's not about to shy away from a line drive, even with a crucial game on the line.

'Yeah, I heard about that play,' McWherter said sheepishly, meaning from coach Tarr.

Her risky dive became a single and an error that threatened but did not ruin Washington's 1-0 victory Saturday. The win helped send the Huskies into a best-of-three super regional against Oklahoma that begins on Thursday. Washington is trying to become the first Huskies team besides women's crew to win back-to-back NCAA championships.

'I practice all year to make plays like that,' McWherter said. 'As far as I'm concerned, that ball is mine.'

As far everyone who has witnessed one of the nation's top-ranked ROTC cadets excel is concerned, everything McWherter seeks is hers. She has earned two scholarships -- for softball, plus the ROTC one she began earning in her sophomore year.

Last summer, she was worried about an imminent ROTC assessment course at nearby Fort Lewis involving more than 5,500 cadets from across the nation. The 29-day event largely decides which cadets will earn active-duty commissions.

She felt unprepared following Washington's long run to the 2009 NCAA title.

Yet McWherter won a coveted award for being ranked second in a regiment of 407 cadets. That entitled her to a pick of service branches in the Army.

'She is truly an amazing young lady,' Daniels said. 'She's a natural leader. Any battalion commander, any company commander, would be fortunate to have her in their unit. ... I can't say enough good things about her.'

Neither can her dad.

Retired Lt. Col. Len McWherter created this. He is a West Point graduate and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He said Saturday's diving attempt at that liner was just his daughter displaying her personality.

'She's always been that way. She's very aggressive,' he said by telephone from his job as site manager for the battle command training center at Fort Lewis, Wash. 'That play does personify her, in a sense that she's always taken a step forward into any situation.

'She doesn't believe she won't get it. She doesn't think anything's impossible.'

McWherter was an infantry battalion commander at Fort Lewis when his daughter was going through her customized ROTC training. He took his daughter onto the post's land navigation lanes, leader obstacle courses and other training sites to make up for the military training she was missing while a Division I athlete.

They tromped through lush evergreens alone on Friday nights.

'Just me and my dad,' she says proudly. 'It was pretty cool.'

Every generation of McWherters has had at least one member enter the military, dating to the Civil War. Grandfather Larry Zimmerman was drafted into the Army in 1950 and served 32 years. He completed one combat tour in Korea and two in Vietnam before retiring as a colonel.

Alyson rushed back with her family to Savannah, Ga., for his funeral in April, hours after a Huskies softball trip. She was chilled watching the unit that conducted his funeral, a combat support unit inside the 3rd Infantry Division. It's the same unit to which she has her first active-duty assignment.

'That's where I should be,' she thought.

Her dad deployed during her sophomore year at Lakes High School in Lakewood, Wash., to serve as the operations officer for the multinational brigade in the northern sector of Iraq. Alyson has since played with the U.S. flag patch that her father wore on his war uniform. It will be there Thursday against the Sooners, showing through her white sock high on the right calf.

'I'll be honest with you, it is a completely different circumstance when you are faced with the prospect of your child entering harm's way,' Len McWherter said. 'It is much, much more difficult. You are helpless. Her mother and I worried, and are still worried. We pray about it.

'But you can't support her in her noble goal if you run away from the tough assignments.'

Didn't dad's war deployment dissuade her from pursuing a military career, with a war still going on in Iraq and Afghanistan?

'I mean, we were the lucky ones. My dad came back,' Alyson said. 'Other people we knew, friends that we knew, their family members didn't.

'And it was just this sense of community, this sense of being a part of something so much bigger than any one individual that just amazed me. The idea that something so horrific and so tragic could happen, yet there was so much good going on at the same time.

'Fighting for something so passionately, it seemed you couldn't go wrong -- no matter what the consequences might be.'

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