Last March, when the 2020 NCAA softball season was abruptly canceled — in the midst of a year in which Washington had legitimate aspirations for a national championship — Kaija Gibson had a jarring thought.
“Oh, my gosh, this is it. I took my jersey off the last time and didn’t even realize it.”
Gibson, a utility player, was one of four Husky seniors who would have finished their careers last year if the season had progressed normally. But the COVID-19 shutdown threw them into a tense limbo for three weeks, until the NCAA ruled to grant an extra year of eligibility for all spring athletes.
And so for Gibson, shortstop Sis Bates, catcher Morganne Flores and infielder Taryn Atlee, it turned out their jerseys were going back on in 2021.
Those four fifth-year seniors (actually, sixth year in the case of Flores, who earlier in her career had been granted a medical redshirt season) are being honored Sunday, along with fellow seniors Livy Schiele, Emma Helm, Pat Moore and Noelle Hee, as the Huskies conclude their final home regular-season series of the year against Utah. Star pitcher Gabbie Plain is also listed as a senior but is planning to return next year for her final year of eligibility.
Once again, Washington has dead aim on a national title, ranked No. 5 in the country and sitting at 38-9 after sweeping a doubleheader from Utah on Saturday. The Huskies rallied late to win the opener, 6-4. Kelley Lynch’s three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth broke a 3-3 tie in a game in which Husky coach Heather Tarr was ejected in the third inning for arguing an interference call that cost UW a run. The Huskies won the second game 6-0, as Sarah Willis and Pat Moore combined on a two-hit shutout.
The Huskies will almost certainly return to Husky Softball Stadium as hosts of the regional tournament. But the emotions were still running high this weekend, along with anticipation for the postseason that was yanked from them last year.
“I don’t think this team has even touched the surface of how good we really can get, which I think is scary. And it’s exciting,” said Atlee.
The prospect of a deep postseason run is helping Tarr cope with the prospect of finally seeing the departure of foundational players in the program when this year ends.
“Yeah, it’s really hard to see them go. I really try not to think about it,” Tarr said. “But the blessing that we hope is that we get to play a lot longer than just the two weeks we have left (in the regular season).”
Once eligibility for 2021 was granted, the four players knew they wanted to come back, even though they were on track for graduation. In softball, there is currently little in the way of professional playing opportunities, so that wasn’t a viable option. And they weren’t quite ready to walk away from the sport — not under those circumstances.
“I think in the long run, had they maybe gone on with their (post-softball) careers, there would have been some regrets, to not fulfill a full four years of actually playing fully,” Tarr observed. “I mean, they know it’s a big deal in their life.”
Still, there were plenty of logistics to work out regarding school and degrees.
Flores and Bates were already planning to remain in the softball program as graduate assistants while pursuing a master’s degree in the university’s Leadership in Higher Education program.
Instead, they got to remain as players while furthering their schooling, a huge boost for the program. Bates, batting over .400 and a defensive whiz at shortstop, is one of 10 finalists (along with Plain, who has a 26-1 record after a complete-game win Saturday) for USA Softball’s Collegiate Player of the Year award. Flores, among the Huskies’ career leaders in home runs, runs batted in and slugging percentage, is having another strong season.
“I knew that if we had the opportunity, I would 100 percent come back and finish what we had started,” Bates said. “And just grow with each other some more.”
“I had a really lucky situation where I was going to come back anyway and finish school,” Flores said. “It actually worked out like perfectly for me, like, I might as well play while I’m here.
“I definitely felt, that’s not how we should go out, especially with things like this weekend. I think we all deserve to get recognized for our time here, and allow us to say thank you to the people that gave us so much.”
It was more complicated for Gibson, who had to finance her own grad school in the athletic leadership program after graduating with an education degree last year. She plans to pursue a coaching career.
“There was really no question in my brain that I wanted to come back and play another season and be with this group of people and continue to grow,” Gibson said. “But it also meant that I had to spend a bunch of money to come back and get my masters. I had to take that into account.
“But in the end, the good outweighed the bad. Before, it was almost like, ‘OK, well, I’m almost done with softball.’ And after it’s all over, you’re kind of wishing that you had been more grateful in every moment. And I think that gave me a different perspective this year, coming back and just being able to appreciate the people that I’m around all the time. This has been just such a blessing. I think that COVID ending our season last year has given me that, and I’m grateful for it.”
For Atlee, who wants to pursue a career in communications, particularly sports broadcasting, the shutdown came too late for her to apply for grad school. So she worked with the Huskies’ academic advisors to help her get in UW’s post-baccalaureate program. She had a broadcasting internship in the fall.
“When you first hear the news and your season ends, I’m not going to lie, I think all of us, especially seniors, were pretty devastated just because of the unknown,” Atlee said. “I just felt like there was so much unfinished business. I knew the second I had a chance to come back, I was going to do it.”
The extended careers have led to a generation gap of sorts that both amuses and inspires the super-seniors, who are as much as six years older than some freshmen. They relish the mentoring role and also learning from the youthful exuberance of the next generation of Husky softball.
“The freshman definitely keep me young in the soul,” Flores said with a laugh.
But it is the bonds that the seniors have built over the years that will sustain them long after their playing days are over. The friendships, they say, will be lifelong, as well as the memories — even of the disruptive 2020 season.
“I remember being a bat girl here at Husky Stadium when I was eight or nine years old, and wanting to be exactly like those players,” Gibson said. “And eventually, I got to be one of those players. And now it’s almost over. It’s crazy, but I’m so thankful. It’s been the best experience, and life changing, for sure.”
Still, the Huskies aren’t quite ready to take off their jerseys yet.