The Washington Huskies begin play Friday in their 23rd consecutive NCAA tournament, hosting Weber State. Aguilar, their shortstop, has 20 homers this season, tied for fourth in the nation.
Ali Aguilar arrived on the Washington softball team three years ago as a mild-mannered slap-hitter.
The second part of that equation has vanished in a blur of home runs. Huskies coach Heather Tarr is working hard with Aguilar on altering the first part.
As the Huskies open play Friday in their 23rd consecutive NCAA tournament, hosting Weber State at 7 p.m. in a four-team regional at Husky Softball Stadium, Aguilar is fully established as one of the leading power hitters in the country.
Washington vs. Weber State, NCAA regional @ Husky Softball Stadium, 7 p.m.
The junior shortstop has slugged 20 homers, which is tied for first in the Pac-12 and tied for fourth in the nation. She leads the Pac-12 with 62 runs batted in (tied for 11th nationally), 68 runs scored and a .842 slugging percentage, while hitting .362.
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Not bad for someone who, as a youth player, “was kind of a small-ball player,” in Tarr’s words. That meant bunting and slapping, a time-honored method of reaching base for faster, smaller softball players.
As she matured, Aguilar got stronger, but not much faster. It was time to change, in Tarr’s analogy, from a wide receiver to a linebacker.
“We really encouraged her to hit away more throughout her first year,” Tarr said.
That wasn’t a particularly easy transition, considering that Aguilar had adapted the slap style after switching from being a right-handed hitter to a left-handed one as a 12-year-old to take full advantage of her speed.
“It’s obviously easier to slap when you’re trying to switch over from a different side of the plate,” Aguilar said.
But with Tarr’s encouragement, Aguilar concentrated on swinging away, which meant accepting the inevitable byproduct of more strikeouts. That’s another element that went contrary to her makeup.
It soon became clear, however, that the trade-off was worth it as Aguilar rose from seven homers and 39 RBI as a freshman, to 16 homers and 58 RBI as a sophomore, to more home runs per game this year than all but one other player in Division I.
“I started hitting balls out and hitting balls farther, so I kind of just stuck with that,” Aguilar said. “Coach Tarr wanted me to be able to hit and be confident in all areas.”
NCAA softball regional
No. 13 Washington is one of the 16 teams hosting a double-elimination NCAA regional this weekend. The schedule and other details:
Friday: Minnesota vs. North Dakota State, 4:30 p.m.; Washington vs. Weber State, 7 p.m.
Saturday: Winners of Friday’s games, 1 p.m.; Losers of Friday’s games, 3:30 p.m.; Loser of Saturday’s first game vs. winner of Saturday’s second game, 6 p.m.
Sunday: Winner of Saturday’s first game vs. winner of Saturday’s third game, noon. Second game between teams, if necessary, 2:30 p.m.
Where: Husky Softball Stadium
Tickets: Available at Ticketmaster.com. Single-session tickets include all games on a single day. Reserved infield $15; adult general admission $10; youth (18 and under)/senior (62 and older) general admission $6
Tarr, in fact, is constantly encouraging Aguilar to assert herself with more force. Though her work ethic has been impeccable from her first day on campus, Aguilar needed a nudge to become a vocal presence.
“We’ve really tried to pull that out of her,” Tarr said. “We’re helping her understand it’s OK to get external. She’s bought into that, and it helps her be a better player.”
Ali Aguilar file
Height: 5 feet 7
Hometown: Orangevale, Calif.
Notable: Has had 14 multiple-RBI games this season, including four games in which she has recorded five or more RBI. ... Registered a career-high seven RBI against Central Michigan on Feb. 20, one short of tying the game record at UW. ... Recorded her third multihomer game of the season on April 24 against Oregon State.
Tarr is always telling Aguilar that her initials of AA stand for “alpha.” Aguilar readily admits that her personality is that of a “responder,” in her words.
“I’m not the type that will just go into an area and make myself known,” she said. “I’ll respond to the way people act. That’s what (Tarr) would consider beta.”
So every time Aguilar displays authority on or off the field, Tarr rewards her with, “Yeah, that’s alpha, Ali!”
Says Aguilar: “I feel she’s doing that because she knows that’s what our team needs out of me. I’m definitely striving to be more of that.”
The Huskies were disappointed that Aguilar didn’t make the final 10 of the National Player of the Year watch list, nor was she named Pac-12 Player of the Year (that honor went to Utah’s Hannah Flippen, who hit .431). Aguilar was named to the All-Pac-12 first team.
But Aguilar seems completely unfazed by the snubs. She responds that her goals are not individual, but rather a trip to the World Series and a repeat of the Huskies’ 2009 national championship.
That’s in keeping with the Huskies’ theme of becoming a tribe, which stems from a Skype talk that Tarr arranged last year with Clint Bruce. He’s a former standout Navy linebacker who had NFL tryouts with the Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints before becoming a Navy SEAL.
“His framework was that elite people are tribal. They know they need other people to succeed,” Tarr said. “Last year’s team really built on it, and it carried over to this year.”
All the other schools the Huskies are competing against consider themselves a team, Aguilar noted.
“We like to be different, have a different label as a tribe,” she said. “It just means that we pick each other up.”
And in the process, Aguilar the Alpha will be right in the middle of things, swinging up a storm.