Under the coach many of the players cheered for when she played on Montlake, the Bulldogs are off to a 9-2 start, the best in recent memory.
Rarely do you get to meet your childhood idol. It’s even rarer to have the chance to be coached by them.
But that’s the story of Garfield softball.
Most of the players were once those cute little girls spotted at every University of Washington softball game wearing something purple, holding up handmade signs and clamoring for photos or autographs. Whitney Jones, a starter on UW’s 2013 Women’s College World Series team, was a favorite, and now she’s the first-year coach at Garfield.
“She was on posters, she was on TV. … Definitely someone I looked up to,” said Josie Barker, a junior infielder. “Garfield softball has never been that great. Getting this new coach, coming from where she comes from in playing at UW, it’s a big deal.”
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Barker still has an official Huskies team poster tacked to her bedroom wall. Jones’ smile and energy are infectious, according to players, contributing to an immediate turnaround at Garfield.
The Bulldogs are 9-2 to open the season, the best the school has seen in recent memory, with a 171-34 run differential.
“It’s understanding that we’re a team and we’re a family,” Jones said. “One thing I preach to the girls is that family keeps it real. Everything we do every day, we’re holding each other accountable to ourselves and our team standards.”
Jones’ predecessor, Tanya Slimp, left Garfield in March 2016 and was hired as an assistant coach at West Seattle. She has since been named the head coach there.
“I’m very proud of that program,” said Slimp, who coached the Bulldogs from 2012-15. “It’s not something that just happened this year. That’s an inner-city school that is a heavy basketball school. Track is another top sport that’s been there, and volleyball has done great. Softball has never been on the top. We (assistant coach Chris Gilbert) had to pull some interest, and we worked hard to do that. There’s been a lot of building where now what you’re seeing is because of a lot of work over the last few years.”
Jones, a former pitcher and outfielder, was named Bulldogs coach in October 2016. After graduating from UW in 2014 and leaving for two years to get her master’s degree in education from the University of Tulsa, she knew she wanted to return to Seattle.
The native Californian had a strong following in the softball community after working skills camps with Washington teammates, morphing that into private pitching lessons. Her popularity drew 21 girls to Garfield’s softball tryouts. The varsity team has eight underclassmen, including right-handed pitcher Kaia Simpson.
Simpson, a sophomore, has a 1.98 ERA with 81 strikeouts in 53 innings. Her teammates have backed that power up with a .499 on-base percentage, Barker leading the way with a .500 batting average with 29 RBI.
“I don’t think (Jones) could have stepped in at a more crucial time or in a more inspiring way,” senior outfielder Fiona Skerrett said. “The mantra now is ‘Expect to Win.’ At the beginning of the season, I was surprised. I realize now a lot of our success is coming from us, it’s not luck with the other teams.”
Jones said majority of the team began training with each other last winter. Her passion, in addition to softball, is strength and conditioning, so she loved seeing her players work out and help build interest in the program throughout the school.
If Garfield continues winning, it could advance to state for the first time in program history. The Bulldogs stumbled against traditional Metro softball power Bainbridge, losing 11-0 Friday. They’ll play first-place Holy Names on Tuesday.
“It’s crazy to see how much they’ve grown,” said Jones, who kept a few posters the Garfield players made for her as kids. “And how they’re playing together still. The girls are having fun, the dugout is amazing. The energy and vibe … to come back and affect this community and be involved in softball is everything I wanted.”