Commentary

Freshmen punctuate experienced UW

Washington Huskies roll to win in NCAA softball tourney opener

Originally Published: May 15, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

AMHERST, Mass. -- Not interested in running the risk of having layovers and delays add to an already difficult travel schedule, Washington made its trip to the other side of the country for the Amherst Regional via the relative comfort of a charter flight.

It was just one more sign this is a team that doesn't lack veteran savvy.

Danielle Lawrie and Jenn Salling played for a medal in the 2008 Olympics with Team Canada. Seven players who took the field in Friday's 9-1 win against Sacred Heart, including Lawrie, saw action in the team's last game in the 2007 Women's College World Series.

[+] EnlargeKimi Pohlman
University of Washington Athletics Kimi Pohlman's speed was put to the test against Sacred Heart.

Heck, even the team's sports information director, Rosie Leutzinger, played in four Women's College World Series -- once as current coach Heather Tarr's teammate.

The talent Washington welcomed back this season made it a top contender to return to Oklahoma City for the second time in three years. But if the opening game of the postseason is any indication, the contributions of a pair of freshmen could go a long way to boosting the team's chances of an extended stay in the Sooner State

Behind a big day from freshmen Kimi Pohlman and Niki Williams, the tournament's No. 4 seed needed just five innings to register a 9-1 run-rule win against Sacred Heart.

It didn't take the newcomers long to make a statement in their first NCAA tournament game. Pohlman singled to left for the team's first hit in the bottom of the first inning, stole second on the first pitch to the next batter and scored on Salling's single to right one pitch later -- even if the play at the plate did end up being a little too close for comfort after Tarr didn't hesitate in waving Pohlman around third.

"I thought the right fielder had a really good arm," Tarr admitted. "I wasn't aware of that; in an NCAA game like this, you can't really scout out anybody's arm. Actually, all of their outfielders had really good arms. Had I known that, I might not have sent her, but it worked out."

A Washington state 100-meter dash champion in high school, Pohlman is perfect on the bases this season with 18 steals in as many attempts. Batting second behind senior Ashley Charters, who was second among Pac-10 players with 33 steals, Pohlman gives the Huskies a 1-2 speed punch along the lines of Caitlin Lowe and Autumn Champion, the Arizona duo who helped pace the 2006 Wildcats to the first of back-to-back championships.

"The speed for us is a big key," Tarr said. "Speed puts pressure on the defense, and it makes things happen. It's huge to get that first run across that way."

The next eight didn't hurt, either.

After drawing a walk in the second inning to load the bases and set up Lauren Greer's subsequent RBI groundout, Williams really got down to business in her next two at-bats. The first baseman lined an RBI single to left in the third and plated two more with another single to left in the fourth inning. On a day when the Huskies left too many runners on base for their coach's liking, Williams picked up a lot of slack.

Pohlman finished eighth in the Pac-10 with a .361 average in conference play (and with three doubles and a home run, it wasn't all slap singles and bunts). Williams, on the other hand, endured a much more familiar indoctrination to the grand old conference. A .333 hitter out of conference, she skidded to a .207 average in 18 Pac-10 appearances.

"Pitching is a lot tougher," Williams said of the college game. "I mean, coming in from travel [ball], as a freshman, it's a whole different scene. … Every at-bat, you have to make an adjustment, know the pitcher, review pitcher before the game, and just know what you have to do and have a plan."

As it turns out, even when it comes to the team's infusion of innocence, experience has proved helpful. In her fifth season at the helm of her alma mater, Tarr had the experience of her first recruiting class to call on if ever tempted to sit Williams down in favor of a veteran.

"Freshmen have to kind of take their lumps sometimes and experience it," Tarr said. "And I look at just the seniors in general on our team, and knowing where they started -- this is kind of my first time letting a whole class come through -- and knowing … the lumps they took. So sometimes, with the depth we have, you want to get somebody else in there sometimes if they're not getting the job done.

"But you have to keep it in perspective, as a coach, to let them experience those things, let them go through what they're going to go through, because they're great athletes and they're going to learn and they're going to get better."

All of which should help the Huskies as they chase an NCAA championship, the one thing none of the Washington players has experienced.

Massachusetts 8, Cornell 0

Playing the first night game at Massachusetts (the school had to bring in temporary lights to meet new requirements for hosting a regional), the home team took a few innings to settle in but eventually handled the spotlight like a Hollywood star.

[+] EnlargeBrandice Balschmiter
UMass Media RelationsBrandice Balschmiter faces Washington's Danielle Lawrie in the Amherst Regional on Saturday.

With an 8-0 run-rule win against Cornell, the Minutewomen earned their way into Saturday's anticipated showdown between Brandice Balschmiter and Washington ace Danielle Lawrie.

"It should be a great matchup," Massachusetts coach Elaine Sortino said. "It's what the national tournament is all about.

After escaping a bases-loaded jam in the top of the third inning, thanks in no small measure to some nifty defense by catcher Jessica Serio, Massachusetts wasted no time completing the momentum swing in the bottom of the inning. Carly Normandin, Whitney Williams and Whitney Mollica turned back-to-back-to-back extra-base hits into two runs, and the Atlantic 10 champions were off to the races

Although technically icing on an already high-calorie cake, Samantha Salato's two-run homer in the fifth inning extended the lead to 4-0 and extended her single-season school record for long balls to 17. In matching her home run total from her first three seasons in Amherst, Salato has added a new layer to an already potent lineup.

"I think for Sam, it's been her willingness to buy in and really work on her swing," Sortino said. "Mentally, she would really lose her patience with herself and get in her own way [in past seasons]. And this year, she's probably more coachable than in all three years combined. She really listened, and she continues to. As long as this season is going, she's constantly making adjustments. I think that's the big difference.

"She's got a lot of power, there's no doubt about that."

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.