So much has changed from the beginning to the end.
The Washington softball team’s conference season began with a whimper, as the then-No. 5 Huskies were swept at home in a three-game series by No. 1 UCLA. In the anticlimactic finale on March 17, the Bruins walked away with a 15-6 win in just five innings, dissecting senior starter Taran Alvelo for 15 earned runs on 15 hits. UCLA registered two home runs — including a grand slam — in the win, and first baseman Rachel Garcia outscored the Huskies all by herself, finishing 4-for-4 with six RBI and three runs scored.
Or, to put it another way: Washington opened Pac-12 play with a uncharacteristically putrid performance, dropping three straight games at home by a combined score of 22-8.
At that point, Heather Tarr’s team could have taken a mighty tumble, from the top of the Pac-12 into the mediocre middle. A Husky squad that reached the College Softball World Series final in 2018 could have settled for something less.
Instead, those same Huskies responded by winning 21 of their next 22 games, the most recent being a 5-2 victory over Stanford on Thursday in the first of a three-game series that will close their conference season.
“We just weren’t together as much as we could have been in that UCLA series,” Tarr said on Thursday night. “We were just evolving our offense. Five starters from last year on our offense graduate, and it just took us that long to really learn ourselves as an offense.
“I think that’s more of the difference there, but we had a good series last weekend (when UW swept No. 4 Arizona on the road) and we’ve got to keep getting better.”
As for Alvelo, the Huskies’ 5-foot-10 senior? She improved to 23-4 on the season, allowing six hits and two earned runs while striking out eight over seven innings. The Cardinal didn’t manage a hit in the first four innings as well. The lone blemish came in the final frame, when Stanford junior Montana Dixon belted a blast over the left field wall towards Lake Washington for a two-run homer.
As she mowed through a lacking Stanford lineup, Alvelo’s teammates chimed in with prophetic chants from the home dugout.
Finish — her.
Finish — her.
Finish — her.
In her final regular season series as a Washington Husky, Alvelo (mostly) obliged.
And she did it all with her number — 14 — painted onto the grass in shallow left field as a silent tribute to the outgoing senior.
“I actually kind of forgot that (the number) was there,” Alvelo said. “I know it’s there, but I kind of shut it out of my brain. I saw it when I was walking in from the car earlier before the game, and I got a little teary-eyed. I was like, ‘OK, stop it. This season’s not over.’ It is what it is, so I just kind of shut off my emotions.”
That is, until the 21st out, when Alvelo struck out Stanford second baseman Emily Klingaman swinging and erupted in a rousing roar.
But she wasn’t the only Husky with a reason to cheer on Thursday. After stranding six baserunners in the first four innings, the Husky hitters sprang to life in the fifth. Following a Sis Bates single, junior catcher Morganne Flores rocketed a liner into the right field corner and Bates came around to score. Flores did the same a few moments later thanks to a Sami Reynolds sacrifice fly.
Freshman right fielder Madison Huskey added an exclamation point in the same inning, turning on a hanging breaking ball and sending a towering blast off the left field foul pole for a three-run homer.
“She just put a good swing on it,” Tarr said. “I’m glad it hit the foul pole, because if it went beyond it would have been a hard one to call. It basically was foul and then it hooked back fair. We kind of got lucky there.”
Still, the Huskies haven’t needed much luck in Pac-12 play. No. 2 Washington (43-7, 18-4 Pac-12) won on Thursday with steady pitching, sensational defense and a handful of timely hits.
In other words, they followed a familiar formula.
“We’re playing Husky softball,” Alvelo said. “I know that’s a pretty generic answer, but you have to believe it. We’re scoring more runs. We’re hitting the ball. We’re having the clutch hit. We’re having dominant defense and good pitching. I feel like that’s what we’re about and that’s how we’re going to keep playing and what’s going to help us be successful.”
That’s certainly the blueprint for the final two games of the Stanford series, scheduled for 5 p.m. on Friday and noon on Saturday. Then the Huskies will turn their gaze to the NCAA regionals, which they’ll almost certainly host at UW next weekend. If all goes well, they’ll return to the Women’s College World Series at the end of the month.
So, yes, this is the end. But it’s also the beginning.