Coach Heather Tarr remains cautious as the eighth-ranked Huskies begin their quest for the Women’s College World Series and have adopted the motto: “Leave No Doubt,” meaning they can’t afford to waste opportunities.
Heather Tarr, Washington’s softball coach, doesn’t mean to be a buzz kill. It’s just that, as she likes to tell her players, she’s constantly paranoid. It’s one of the hazards of the coaching profession – the constant fear that even triumph can sow the seeds of doom, if you’re not careful.
In their final game before the NCAA regional tournament that begins Friday at Husky Softball Stadium, UW roared back from an 11-run deficit last Saturday to defeat Utah, 13-12, in extra innings.
Considering that Utah is nationally ranked, and considering that the Huskies have won 13 of their last 14 games, you’d think that they’d be bursting with momentum heading into the postseason.
And they most certainly are, as they prepare to face Montana in their regional opener. It’s just that Tarr doesn’t want her players dwelling on that fact.
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“I probably ruin it for our team because I say, ‘So what. Next pitch. Get over it,’ ’’ Tarr said with a laugh on Thursday.
In the jubilation of that epic win in Salt Lake City – the biggest comeback victory in program history – star shortstop Ali Aguilar beseeched her coach, “Can we just celebrate for 12 hours?”
Tarr glanced at her watch and warily granted permission. But one gets the sense that she had a timer set to go off at precisely 12 hours. This is a Husky team with high expectations; the UW enters postseason play with a 43-11 record, ranked eighth in the country and seeded sixth overall in the NCAA field. And Tarr is a strong believer that maximizing mental preparation fosters success on the field.
That’s why she loves to use metaphors from eclectic ventures ranging from mountain climbing to the Iditarod sled-dog race to help motivate her players. It’s why they’ve adapted some principles from Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who is a devotee of sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, co-author of “Heads-Up Baseball,’’ which has long been a bible for UW softball.
And it’s why the Huskies annually coin a motto that embodies their mindset and goals for the upcoming season, while adding new mantras periodically during the season. Their 2017 motto is “Leave No Doubt,” while their current mantra is to stay focused in the moment, no matter the distractions. In other words, “Next pitch.”
“We have to create our mottos every year organically and allow the team’s personality to fit the motto,’’ Tarr said.
The phrase “Leave no doubt,’’ she explained, reflects the mindset that “we can’t screw around. When we play these teams and we have opportunities throughout the regular season, we have to continue to leave no doubt.”
There’s no denying the success of Tarr’s methods. The Huskies are riding a remarkable stretch of 24 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, the last 13 of those under Tarr. That includes four trips to the Women’s College World Series, most recently in 2013, and a national title in 2009.
A four-year letterwinner herself at UW out of Redmond High School, Tarr took over shortly after the ouster of Teresa Wilson, who built the Huskies into a national power but was ousted in 2003 in the wake of a prescription-drug scandal. Tarr was 29 with no head-coaching experience when the Huskies gave her the job; she told The Seattle Times’ Jerry Brewer in 2014, “I don’t even know why they hired me. What were they thinking? Letting a 29-year-old take this over?”
The decision, though, has long since been justified as Tarr has not only sustained UW’s softball success but elevated it. She remains steadfast in crediting Wilson for building the roots, and speaks of the obligation she feels to keep it growing.
“I feel like this program was planted into the ground so well that – it’s not easy, don’t get me wrong, but the things we can do with it are so honorable, you have to continue the success,’’ she said.
It helps immeasurably that the Huskies have two senior leaders that are virtual coaches on (and off) the field in Aguilar and outfielder Casey Stangel, both of whom were named first-team All-Pac-12 along with pitcher Taran Alvelo. Tarr said that Aguilar and Stangel often put out fires and help lift up underclassmen before she even has to bring it up.
“We have probably the best middle management on this team we’ve ever had,’’ Tarr said. “Casey and Ali are wonderful middle managers. That’s what senior leadership should be. They create a triangle of communication between the coaches and the team.”
The Huskies have been trying to replicate the Danielle Lawrie-led ’09 championship for eight years now. Tarr says, “I think this team has a chance to go really far,” but of course doesn’t want to get too far ahead of herself.
“I think this team has the motivation, it has the skill set all the way around,’’ she said. “But sometimes it’s the luck of the draw. It’s who you match up with, and how that goes, what’s working at the time. Things are very fragile.”
One presumes that if the Huskies do go all the way this year, Tarr will allow them to celebrate for longer than 12 hours.