Commentary

Tarr brings Washington full circle

Former Husky leads softball team to championship in fifth season as coach

Updated: June 3, 2009, 9:40 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- One bad inning wasn't going to stop the Washington Huskies from finishing what they started, just as one big challenge didn't deter their coach from returning to her alma mater to finish what she helped lay the foundation for more than a decade ago.

Where once there was nothing, now there is a championship.

Overcoming a nightmare start in the second game of the Women's College World Series championship against Florida -- a frame in which they fell behind before the game was five minutes old and eventually surrendered two runs on a hit, a passed ball, an error, a walk and a sacrifice fly -- the Huskies rallied for a 3-2 win to sweep the Gators in the best-of-three series for the program's first national championship.

Washington
AP PhotoWashington swept top seed Florida in the championship series to win the program's first national title.

Washington was forced to spend the entire NCAA tournament on the road and escaped both a 15-inning elimination game in regional play and an elimination game Sunday in Oklahoma City. Fittingly, its run ended only after Florida's Francesca Enea provided some drama with a seventh-inning double that came about a foot away from tying the game.

Equally fittingly, it finally did come to an end with a pair of strikeouts from Danielle Lawrie, whom coach Heather Tarr called the best player in the history of a program that made its ninth trip to the World Series this season.

"I'm just so proud to be a part of what this program is about -- has been about -- for as long as it's been in existence since 1993," said Tarr, who played and lost a national championship game with the Huskies in 1996. "And the people that have played in this program, that have played for national championships, we all understand what this feeling is like. We've knocked on the door.

"And I knew when we recruited Danielle's class we were going to have the potential to do this; and for it to become a reality, and to do it the right way, I can't even put it into words. We just have an amazing group of young women."

Softball's future was on display in a WCWS marked by more offense than ever before, bigger crowds than ever before and the strongest run ever for the SEC, a conference undeniably ready for the big stage. But even as a first-time champion was crowned for the second year in a row and the third time in the past five years, the Huskies celebrated at the confluence of the sport's past, present and future.

When Tarr was growing up in the Seattle suburb of Redmond, Wash., she didn't play softball. There wasn't any fast-pitch culture to speak of, and certainly no team at the University of Washington. So she played baseball for as long as she could (until, as she put it, the boys started getting Adam's apples and she wimped out) and looked for a chance to play volleyball in college. Only after Teresa Wilson, the first coach in Washington history, approached her about walking on for her new program did Tarr consider that route.

This isn't ancient history; this is about the same time Nirvana put the city on the pop culture map.

Despite learning on the go in a sport dramatically different from baseball or the slow-pitch softball available in her high school, Tarr emerged as a key part of the program's early success. And in so doing, she helped change a culture.

Freshman Kimi Pohlman grew up in another Seattle suburb a little more than a decade after Tarr. A member of the WCWS all-tournament team after hitting .375 and scoring six runs in six games for the Huskies this season, including two in Tuesday's clincher, Pohlman had a different experience.

"I loved Husky softball," Pohlman said of her youth. "There was a group of me and my friends, we played Little League together, and the Huskies, all the girls were our heroes. I mean all of them were. … They were a huge, huge influence on us. A bunch of my friends were nicknamed Rosie after [current Washington softball sports information director and one-time Tarr teammate] Rosie Leutzinger. It was a huge factor. We came to all the games; they were really role models for us."

And although Tarr had moved on to become the associate coach at Pacific, there was no hesitation when Washington offered Tarr her first head coaching job in 2005 after controversy enveloped the program, coinciding with Wilson's departure two seasons earlier and a subsequent season spent under the guidance of interim co-coaches.

"The only pressure I ever felt was wanting to be as good a coach as Wilson was, although I'm totally different than her," Tarr said. "I've taken so many things from her, but I'm just a different person. For probably two, three years, I measured myself by her measuring stick, of what she was able to do at Washington in her time. And I kept having to remember she was at several places before she got to Washington."

[+] EnlargeHeather Tarr
Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMIHeather Tarr lost a national title when she played for Washington, but her Huskies won one Tuesday.

Having started with the recruiting class that included Lawrie, catcher Alicia Blake and designated player Ashlyn Watson, Tarr reached the World Series two years ago and super regionals in two other seasons. But it wasn't until this season, her first with a roster almost entirely the product of her own recruiting and with a new staff of assistants, that she felt the program was truly her own.

"This is like our first year when I fully felt like every part of the program reflected who I am and who I want to be, from our strength coach to our coaching staff to the student-athletes that we had," Tarr said. "When you get to sit in the kid's house when they're a senior in high school, you get to know them, they get to know you; they're bought into you and there's no wavering. I think that's what makes the hugest difference is being able to just have them embrace me and have me just be able to coach them."

And so the pieces came together in a way that not even a three-week road trip or late-game dramas could derail. Lawrie returned from last year's Olympic sojourn with Team Canada as a more focused, in some ways more hardened, pitcher. Ashley Charters returned from hip surgery that knocked her out of action last season and anchored the infield and the top of the order. Midseason addition Jenn Salling, who transferred from Oregon, played world-class defense at shortstop while waiting for a bat that finally came alive again in the postseason. And freshmen such as Pohlman and Niki Williams embraced postseason pressure like an old friend.

On Tuesday night, a program that upheld the tradition and history of the Pac-10 also fulfilled a dream born 16 years ago to build something new where nothing had been before. Kids from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon finished what Tarr and others started.

"It meant so much to me because those kids are a product of what our program was and is," Tarr said. "And it's just so cool to be able to see it come around full circle."

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.