After reaching the championship series last season, the Huskies return four star players and will add nine freshmen to a team that starts the season Friday ranked as high as No. 2.
Taran Alvelo, the Huskies’ All-American pitcher, calls this year’s Washington softball team “the perfect mix of old and new.”
The old – three returning All-Americans from the squad that made it all the way to the NCAA title series last year – is what has the Huskies ranked as high as No. 2 in the preseason polls.
The young – nine freshmen who will vie for significant playing time – is what has coach Heather Tarr both excited and a bit curious heading into the season-opening Puerto Vallarta College Challenge beginning Friday. (Yes, Tarr deserves early Coach of the Year consideration for getting the Huskies out of the snow and into sunny Mexico.)
“With the team we had last year, we knew what we were going to get,’’ she said. “We were growing that senior class from the time they were freshmen. This year, we don’t know what we’re going to get.”
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Besides old and new, there needs to be a special category for Morganne Flores, who straddles both descriptions. She was a two-year star at catcher for the Huskies before suffering a major knee injury last year that wiped out her entire 2018 season. Now she is fully healthy again and expected to split time at catcher and first base.
“I feel really good,’’ Flores said. “My trainer and I have been working every single day on getting my knee back to where it was.”
Looking back, Tarr is amazed the Huskies reached the best-of-three championship series – where they were swept by Florida State – without Flores. She is the fourth Husky on the USA Collegiate Softball Preseason Player of the Year watch list, along with the All-Americans: Shortstop Sis Bates and pitchers Gabbie Plain and Alvelo. No other school in the country has four on the list.
“I can’t believe we did what we did last year without her,’’ Tarr said. “It humbles you to know she’s such a good player … and to be able to overcome that? Holy cow. It would have been awesome, obviously, at the very end to have one more big piece to our offense. But it’s very exciting to have her back and to know we have another veteran in the mix.”
To have gotten so close to the program’s second national title before falling short is obviously a motivator for this year’s team – even the rookies who just watched it on TV.
“Everything we do is to just be one step farther than before,’’ said Alvelo.
Having two All-American pitchers on the staff is a good place to start. So is having a shortstop, Bates, that Tarr ranks as the equal of any Husky player ever at that tradition-rich position. She believes Bates, a defensive marvel who hit a team-high .389 last year, has even more motivation than the near-title to drive her. Bates tried out for the U.S. national team but didn’t make it.
“I think that left a bad taste in her mouth – which is good,’’ Tarr said. “She knows she can do more as a player. Our job is to help push her and help elevate her game.”
Much of the Huskies’ success in a rugged Pac-12 Conference and beyond figures to rise or fall on the development of the freshmen. There are opportunities for playing time particularly in the outfield, where senior Amirah Milloy is the lone returning veteran, and the corner infield spots. Tarr says she’ll give everyone a shot and not settle on her starting lineup until midway through the Pac-12 schedule.
As is typical with a Tarr team, she has put an emphasis on building chemistry and camaraderie among the veterans and newcomers.
“The older people are teaching the younger people our ways, our traditions, our vocabulary,’’ Flores said. “The freshmen are absolutely awesome in taking the new information and running with it. It’s been really cool getting to teach them and getting to bounce things off each other and getting to learn together.”
That bonding began during a December trip to Australia. Tarr has seen tangible growth from freshmen like Sami Reynolds (outfield), Silent Rain Espinoza (infield), Megan Vandegrift (infield) and Ari Quinones (utility), among others. In one notable moment in a recent scrimmage, Reynolds stepped up against Alvelo and got a single up the middle.
Whenever she gets antsy worrying about the newcomers, Tarr tries to remind herself that the seniors who were such rocks on last year’s team started out as tenuous freshmen, too.
“You have to keep in perspective that growth happens, and you have to allow the growth to happen to get to where we were last year,’’ she said. “They did their thing and had their awesome careers. Now it’s, what can the next generation do?”
The Huskies made it to nationals two years ago and to the championship game last year. It’s obvious what would be the final step in the progression. But Tarr doesn’t want to dwell on that.
“It’s a whole new world for this team,’’ she said.