Washington softball coach Heather Tarr looks back 10 years and laughs. How did she get here? She still doesn’t know.
How did a 29-year-old with no head-coaching experience and infinite audacity convince her alma mater in 2004 that she could manage a proud program racked by scandal?
Even though Tarr proved herself long ago, even though her résumé now includes 400 wins, nine NCAA super regionals, four Women’s College World Series appearances and the program’s first national championship in 2009, she can’t help turning sheepish while remembering her youthful nerve.
“I just think back, and for one, I don’t even know why they hired me,” Tarr says. “What were they thinking? Letting a 29-year-old take this over? That’s, like, serious. I don’t really look back on it much, but looking back on it, if I knew all that I was going to go through and how it was going to be, I would’ve been so intimidated that I don’t even know if I would’ve done it, to be honest with you.”
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She laughs again. The only thing funnier than her nerve must have been her naiveté.
Ten years later, the unconventional hire is now the unquestioned leader of a dominant program. The Huskies are amid another deep tournament run, and Tarr is standing in the third-base coaching box, arms folded, wearing dark sunglasses and a visor, making it impossible to tell if she’s pleased or angry.
The beginning may have been difficult, but the present is inspiring. Now 39 and experienced, Tarr is in a groove, and her famous “business” plan that helped her get the job reads like a prophecy these days, and despite all the work it took, she still feels young.
“I don’t feel 10 years older,” Tarr says. “I feel 10 years wiser.”
That’s a good thing, because expectations are persistent. Create them, and they only multiply. Meet them, and they only push the bar higher. But just as Tarr had a plan for restoring the reputation of Husky softball, she’s following a similar model to sustain it.
With Tarr, it always comes back to tradition. She coaches every day believing that “the spirit of the past” guides the Huskies.
Team activities often involve learning Washington softball history. They spend much time talking about Husky Fever, which is one of the program’s five core covenants and expresses respect for tradition, winning habits and team spirit.
“When you go through the program, you know what being a Husky is all about,” said Bailey Stenson, who played for the team from 2007-10 and was a member of the national-title squad. “Coach Tarr drills that into us — Husky Fever. It’s fun to come back and see that many of the traditions are the same, to hear that a lot of the cheers are the same. Everyone is connected. The things I learned in the program, I still apply to my life.”
Tarr has evolved, but at her core, she’s still a product of this tradition. She always expresses great respect for her former coach, Teresa Wilson, who gave birth to the softball program and built it into a national power before a prescription-drug scandal led to her ouster in 2003.
When Tarr took over the program, she had to move the Huskies past that controversy and earn the trust of players that she didn’t recruit, many of whom were being led by the third coach of their collegiate careers. The challenge was immense, but Tarr can admit now that she put too much pressure on herself.
In the beginning, former players say Tarr was visibly emotional about every loss, feeling as if she were letting down the program. In a game as mentally taxing as softball, an even-keeled approach is usually best. But Tarr wanted it so much. She laughs about that now, too.
“Back then, it’s more like you don’t know where you’re going as much, and so you feel like every loss is a step back,” Tarr said. “You think everybody around you feels like you are the one that did that. You are the one that caused the loss. So you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh. What do I need to do better?’ I think, when you’re younger, you really wear it because you’re right there with everybody. You’re not so experienced to know that those things happen.”
Now, Tarr embraces the adversity of a season. This year, the Huskies (36-13) have lost two catchers (Kimberlee Souza and Courtney Gano) to injury, and they lost six of their first eight Pac-12 games. Nevertheless, they earned a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the super regionals, where they’ll open a best-of-three series against Florida in Gainesville on Saturday.
The Huskies have won 12 of their past 13 games. They’re playing their best softball at the right time, which is typical of a Tarr program.
“Together, we’ve come a long way,” Washington first baseman Hooch Fagaly said.
Fagaly calls Tarr “the type of coach that makes you want to be a better player.” She’s demanding, but it’s easy for the Huskies to find purpose in everything they’re asked to do.
Every team has a theme for its season, and it’s used to guide the players through the long year. Every year, Tarr is a little more secretive about the theme, wanting to make it as sacred as possible. She will only allow that bricks are a key element of this year’s theme.
Whatever the exact message, the Huskies are trying to build something special.
It didn’t take Tarr long to learn the importance of connecting with her players. When she inherited the program 10 years ago, she gave those players an open forum to vent at all times.
Former player Dena Tyson once said, “It was like an open mic all the time when coach Tarr first came. She wanted us to talk. If you needed to get something off your chest, you got it off your chest.”
Out of that venting came trust. Now, Tarr has had several classes of players that she recruited, but good communication is a trademark of the program.
So is a consistent message. While some coaches restrict their players on social media, Tarr embraces it — with a caveat. She requests that players talk about the team and use the hashtag #FOYBR — an acronym that references this year’s theme — at the end of their Twitter posts. Even in 140 characters, Tarr hopes to build camaraderie.
“We hope that it allows them to understand that, every single thing you say and do, you’re either competing or you’re not,” Tarr said. “So don’t put any bullcrap, noncompetitive verbiage on social media. That’s easy for young people to do because they emote. And then they regret it five hours later. So think about what you’re saying and how you’re promoting yourself and your program.”
J.T. D’Amico, Tarr’s husband and a Washington assistant coach for the past six seasons, gets emotional when talking about his wife. Their relationship speaks to how much sports have influenced Tarr’s life.
Tarr is a family woman. Her parents, Vic and Ardee Tarr, still attend as many of her games as they can. During games at Husky Softball Stadium, you can hear Vic leading chants in the crowd. Heather Tarr treats her team like a family, right down to once spending 2½ hours with senior pitcher Kaitlin Inglesby waiting for a doctor’s appointment. Inglesby was recovering from 40 broken bones in her face after being hit by a line drive.
Tarr and D’Amico were longtime friends before they married. His late father, Tom D’Amico, once coached Tarr when she played baseball with the boys as a youth.
Today, sports connect Tarr’s entire life.
“I just love her,” her husband said. “I think there’s just an unspoken, deep respect for each other that we both have that makes it a blast every day. Practice, games – they’re all the same. At home, it’s the same as in the dugout. You can communicate through body language, a look, a wink, a pull, and that’s the good stuff. I just … I just wish my dad was here to see it.”
The way Tarr coaches, Tom D’Amico is right there with them. The spirit of the past is always with these Huskies.
A year ago, the Huskies beat Missouri in the super regionals to advance to the College World Series. They knew they would win during the pregame because of a song.
During the Huskies’ 2009 title run, ESPN used the Kings of Leon song “Use Somebody,” and the Huskies embraced it, and the story has been passed down for five years. And guess what song played before that game against Missouri?
“We all looked around, and we knew we were going to win,” Inglesby said. “We knew we had the spirit of the past players with us that day, saying, ‘You’ve got this. This is our song. And we’re playing it now.’ ”
And on a rowdy team bus after that victory, the Huskies turned on the radio, and “Use Somebody” was playing again.
Ten years later, Tarr has Husky Fever at an all-time high.
|Ten years under Heather Tarr|
|UW has played in the softball postseason in each of Tarr’s 10 seasons as coach.|
|Year||Seed||Final round||Final rank|
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
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