If you ask Washington softball coach Heather Tarr how she plans to deploy her two standout pitchers in the NCAA Regionals at Husky Softball Stadium beginning Friday, she will dance deftly around the question like a base runner trying to avoid the tag at home plate.
Tarr knows that for the Huskies, seeded No. 3 nationally, one of their biggest aces in the hole is that they actually have two aces in the hole. Senior Taran Alvelo is 24-4 with a 1.61 earned-run average and a Pac-12-leading 257 strikeouts in 174 1/3 innings. Sophomore Gabbie Plain is 19-2 with a 1.32 ERA, 194 strikeouts in 148 1/3 innings, and the first back-to-back no-hitters in program history.
It’s an embarrassment of riches for a team that once rode their brilliant workhorse hurler, Danielle Lawrie, to the only national title in Husky history in 2009.
Now, as they prepare to face Fordham in the first step of what they hope will be a third straight trip to the Women’s College World Series, the Huskies believe they have strength in numbers when it comes to the pitching circle.
“We’re so lucky to have the dimension we do with these two,’’ said Tarr. “For both of them to be smart, experienced, and have the capabilities they do, it definitely gives us an advantage. We have a chance to win every single game from here on out, because of our pitching staff and because of our defense.”
Alvelo has started 24 games and completed 15. Plain has started 22 and completed 13. That’s admirable durability, but it also means that one has relieved the other on numerous occasions. Plain has four saves, Alvelo two. And it’s not just the media and opposition that Tarr keeps guessing.
“We’re always sort of ready whenever we’re needed,’’ Plain said. “We don’t really have the requirement where we need to know exactly when we’re going in – which is proven by the fact we don’t really ever find out when we’re pitching until about an hour before the game. We are sort of always just prepared.”
It’s been a devastatingly effective formula for the Huskies, who come into the postseason with a Pac-12 co-championship and 45-7 overall record, having won seven straight games and 23 of their last 24.
There are numerous keys to the Huskies’ surge, including the maturation of a large freshman class. In particular, first-year outfielders Sami Reynolds (.325) and Madison Huskey (five homers) and infielder Silentrain Espinoza (.380) have become key contributors. Tarr was delighted to hear Reynolds marvel this week about how far the freshmen have come since March.
“It just warms your heart to know that they’ve bought into the process and really understand what Husky softball is all about,” Tarr said.
In junior shortstop Sis Bates, the Huskies have the conference’s two-time Defensive Player of the Year to go with a .379 average. Catcher Morganne Flores has come back from a knee injury to smash 18 homers and hit .339, while infielder Taryn Atlee sports a .359 average and outfielder Amirah Milloy is at .319.
But for the Huskies, it all starts in the circle, and the variety of looks they can offer any opponents – all of them of the highest caliber.
“The good thing is, they’re completely different, so they complement each other in any way, shape or form,’’ Tarr said. “They’re versatile and they’re selfless and they work together, so you don’t have a problem as a coach really being able to strategically use them as the game says that you need to use them.”
Alvelo said that the chemistry and synergy between the two comes naturally.
“I think what’s super cool is when we practice, when we go over film, and we talk with our coaches, it’s always together,’’ she said. “We approach everything the same, even though we’re completely different. I think that’s what sets up our plan, or our minds, and gets us ready for whoever we’re playing, whatever order we go in. We’re both equally as prepared.”
The Huskies, who made it all the way to the best-of-three national championship series last year before getting swept by Florida State, will be the heavy favorite to advance to Super Regionals. But Tarr is working hard to keep her players from thinking that way in a regional with Seattle University and Mississippi State – two teams UW defeated in the regular season, but narrowly – as well as Atlantic 10 champion Fordham.
“You’ve got to cherish the opportunity but be humble enough to know, your season could be done on Monday,” Tarr said.
“We’re trying to enjoy each other and see how good we can get over these next few days. We believe in ourselves whole-heartedly, but we definitely are humble enough to know you’ve got to continue to compete and get better.”
That starts in the circle, where opponents must choose their poison – or, more accurately, accept the poison Tarr chooses for them. Not even Plain and Alvelo know very far in advance, but they’re co-conspirators in constructing a plan of attack.
“We just kind of figure it out together,’’ Alvelo said.