Washington coach Heather Tarr knew it was coming. Star shortstop Sis Bates and standout catcher Morganne Flores couldn’t play college softball forever.

Granted an extra year of eligibility last season because of the pandemic, Bates returned for a fifth season and Flores for a sixth season and led Washington (45-14) to the super regionals.

“It was great to extend their life in Husky softball, but you graduate,” said Tarr, whose team missed the Women’s College World Series last season for the first time since 2016. “Now, we obviously had a plan for that. You can’t replace those guys, but the new ones we have are exciting too. There once wasn’t a Sis Bates. In 2016, she didn’t exist (with UW softball). We hope the next era is equally, if not more, exciting.”

We will soon find out. The seventh-ranked Huskies open the season Thursday against Lamar in the Puerto Vallarta Invitational in Mexico.

It certainly helps Washington that pitcher Gabbie Plain, a two-time first-team All-American, is returning for a fifth season. She was 32-4 with a 1.45 ERA and 337 strikeouts in 237 1/3 innings.

“How can Gabbie be any better?” Tarr said. “Look at the numbers. It’s ridiculous.”

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But there is plenty of quality behind Plain on the 17-player roster, the second-smallest in Tarr’s tenure as head coach at UW (which started in 2005) and seven players less than last season. That was by design.

“We have so many options on our small, 17-player roster,” Tarr said. “It’s hard to keep the 22nd through the 28th women (on the roster) happy. And realistically, are they competing for playing time on your team? I would argue that.”

Tarr, who is also the coach of the U.S. national team, said a primary focus has been the development of the middle infield.

There are a few options to replace Bates, considered one of the greatest defensive shortstops in college history. Leading the list is senior Baylee Klingler, who played second and third base last season and was a second-team All-American after leading the Huskies in batting average (. 416), home runs (16), runs (56) and runs batted in (53).

“She is just a stud utility player who can hit,” Tarr said.

Also in the mix are freshmen Kinsey Fiedler and Rylee Holtorf, who were touted recruits.

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“Kinsey is a super, super-talented athlete — different than Sis but equally exciting to watch,” Tarr said. “She plays with that competitive energy that you come to love. Rylee will compete for time in the middle infield as well as at third base.”

Tarr said she will platoon at shortstop (“We have too talented of a roster not to do that”) at least for the first part of the season.

Competing to replace Flores as the starting catcher are freshman Olivia Johnson and sophomore Jenn Cummings from Redmond.

“She was the lucky understudy of Morganne last year,” Tarr said of Cummings. “Had it not been for the pandemic, she would not have gotten to learn from Morganne. We see that as a huge value.”

One of the keys last season was to develop a reliable No. 2 starter behind Plain, and that never really materialized with several getting opportunities.

“We had Gabby and three pitchers with very limited experience — Kelley Lynch, Brooke Nelson and Sarah Willis,” Tarr said.

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While striving to win the Pac-12 (UW finished second), Tarr said the Huskies “might have gone to Gabbie a few too many times.” That also allowed for less opportunities to develop a second pitcher.

“So this is going to be that year, and really focus on the development of the whole staff,” Tarr said. “We’ll try to give Gabbie (plenty) of innings, but we’ll try to get 50% or more out of the other ones.”

Lynch, who was the high-school player of the year in 2019, was bothered by a hand injury last season and had surgery after the season.

She will get another chance this year, as will Nelson, Willis and Pat Moore, who elected to return for a fifth season. Moore pitched a no-hitter against Seattle University in the NCAA tournament last year.

The pitchers figure to get some good offensive support as several of the team’s top hitters last season, led by Klingler, are coming back.

That group includes senior Sami Reynolds, an alternate for the U.S. national team, who hit .321 and tied for second on the team in home runs (12), and fellow senior SilentRain Espinoza (. 311).

Although Bates, a two-time first-team All-American, isn’t playing, her presence is still felt. She’s spending the season as a student assistant while finishing her master’s degree.

“Being a head coach, having someone of her stature, it’s like having Elvis Presley on your staff,” Tarr said of Bates, who is helping the young middle infielders. “She is the cat’s meow to the softball world. What a blessing it is for us to have her give all those lessons that she learned to our team now. She has already made such an impact.”