Monday was a joyful day for the University of Washington softball team — and there haven’t been many of those since a season of unfettered success was so abruptly halted.
It should go without saying by this point that athletic tribulations are down the list of concerns during this time of coronavirus pandemic. Yet for the women who had poured their hearts and souls into what was shaping up as a legitimate national-title run, the loss was tangible, and profound.
The Huskies were 23-2, ranked No. 2 in the country and preparing for their home opener against the U.S. national team, followed the next day by their Pac-12 opener against Utah, when the sports world screeched to a halt on March 12. The 2020 season now will forever carry a tormented “what could have been” scenario for coach Heather Tarr’s Huskies, along with all other spring athletes.
“We had such awesome team chemistry, and everyone was bought in, and everyone was working so hard, and we were all doing it for each other,” senior catcher Morganne Flores said in a phone interview from her Southern California home.
“It was definitely a unique team, and I feel we definitely could have gone far and won the whole thing. That’s what’s so devastating, is we were clicking so well and everything was falling in our hands.”
It tore at Tarr so much that she posted a tweet she now admits was driven by the high emotion of the moment. In the tweet, Tarr vowed that for the Huskies’ four seniors, “I’ll be damned if Sis Bates, Morganne Flores, Kaija Gibson and Taryn Atlee played their last softball game this past Sunday. … This is not the end.”
And now to the joyful part, nearly three weeks later. Because of Monday’s ruling by the NCAA’s Division I council — which had all four seniors staring at their phone while the meeting dragged on — this will indeed not be the end. All spring-sport athletes were granted an additional season of competition, a decision that was greeted with relief and jubilation by the Husky team.
“It weighed heavily on my mind once this season got canceled,” said Tarr, who is riding out the home quarantining with her parents and brother in Wenatchee. “So this is amazing.”
All Tarr wanted for her seniors was for them to have a say in their futures, and now that’s the case. Flores, for one, plans to come back to play next year for what would be her sixth season, including an injury redshirt year.
“It’s going to be a long career for me — probably the longest in history,” she said with a laugh.
Flores believes her three fellow seniors will be back as well, which would set up the Huskies nicely for another title run. But the logistical challenges for Tarr and other spring coaches has only just begun.
For starters, there’s the matter of financing scholarships for the potentially returning seniors at a time when colleges have lost millions in revenue from the canceled NCAA basketball tournaments. Monday’s NCAA ruling dictated that those senior athletes can receive the same or less scholarship aid next year as they did in 2020, but left it for each school to decide the amount.
Tarr said Washington’s four seniors need to have their scholarships extended to be able return next year. Luckily, athletic director Jen Cohen is making it happen. UW spokesman Jay Hilbrands confirmed that the Huskies plan to provide the same aid as last year for the 18 to 22 seniors across all their spring sports that are expected to return next year.
“For them to say they’re going to do that blindly says a lot about what they’re about, supporting us and these athletes,” Tarr said.
In the case of both Flores, who hit 23 homers in 2019, and Bates, the All-American shortstop, they were scheduled to be graduate assistants for the softball team next year while enrolled in master’s programs. Now instead they can be active players while finishing their schoolwork.
“So it kind of falls in line for Morganne in a really good situation, and for Sis Bates as well,” Tarr said.
The coach, however, will have to grapple with what suddenly will be an overpacked team, with the four unexpected returnees and five incoming freshmen. Instead of the usual 18- to 20-person roster, the Huskies will be pushing 25 or 26, depending on possible attrition.
The anticipated lack of locker space will be the least of Tarr’s concerns. She’s already thinking about the travel rosters, which won’t increase despite the influx of players. It could also be problematic for women who were expecting playing time to open up with the departure of seniors who, it turns out, won’t be departing.
“So you’ll have to have tough conversations with maybe five or six women,” Tarr said.
Another knotty issue moving forward will be the distribution of scholarship money. Tarr calls it the “trickle-down” of the seniors returning.
“You’ve got to really choose who’s going to get the aid, because they can’t all get it,” she said. “Those are just the byproducts of the bliss, with Sis and Morganne and Taryn Atlee and those guys coming back, are these harder conversations with kids.”
Tarr can even look further down the road at the challenges of finding scholarship money for all the current underclassmen who suddenly now have an extra year of eligibility. There likely won’t be enough for everybody.
“It just becomes this business thing,” she said. “You’re going to have to give people the right to choose what’s in their best interest. And then be transparent financially. It’s kind of hard.”
But those are stresses for another day. Right now, as Husky players are sheltered at home immersed in online classes and doing whatever softball drills they can do in their yards, garages and living rooms, there is a sense of great relief in the program. Their championship quest will resume in 2021, with the powerhouse squad more or less intact — if not enhanced.
“I’m just glad we’re able to come back next year with the addition of the freshman and try it all again,” Flores said. “Everything happens for a reason, and I’m just excited hopefully that the senior class can come back next year and have another shot at it.”
Tarr was right all along — this is not the end.