Commentary

Freshmen help lift Washington in opener

Kimi Pohlman, Niki Williams make key plays for Huskies against Georgia in WCWS

Updated: May 28, 2009, 8:13 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Whether or not it proves to be the opening salutation in a new championship chapter of the Washington Huskies' softball history, the ball that Niki Williams lined over the fence in the fourth inning of Thursday's Women's College World Series opener against Georgia marked the dawn of a new era in college softball.

[+] EnlargeNiki Williams
University of Washington AthleticsNiki Williams' third homer this year was a charm, helping Washington win its WCWS opener.

Williams became the first player born in the 1990s to hit a home run in the World Series.

It's enough to make a person feel a little decrepit, even if 34-year-old Washington coach Heather Tarr is little more than a decade removed from playing for the Huskies in Oklahoma City.

"Born into the '90s -- I don't even know what to make of that," Tarr said with a laugh. "Wow, how far things have come. She was born when all those highlights [that were] being shown up on the screen [happened]. I can't imagine what she thinks of those hairdos and all of that."

The blast from Williams, her first home run since Feb. 27 against Seattle University and just the third of her freshman season, staked Washington to a 2-0 lead in the eventual 3-1 win. The national 3-seed Huskies take on 10-seed Arizona State on Friday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).

"The first at-bat, [Christie Hamilton] kind of jammed me," Williams said. "And so I just came up the next at-bat with a new approach. I scoot off the plate a little bit, had the timing slap and got my hands through."

After Georgia trimmed the lead to a single run on an RBI double from Taylor Schlopy in the top of the fifth, Huskies freshman Kimi Pohlman provided a key insurance run with an RBI single in the bottom of the sixth (albeit aided by a curious cutoff of a throw that might have made for a close play at the plate if left unmolested).

Even during the opening afternoon session of the World Series, which traditionally draws the smallest crowd, there were far more people and far more distractions on hand than either team faced during the regular season. But it came as little surprise to Tarr that her two freshmen stepped up with the biggest hits of the day, in part because they're surrounded by a core of players who appeared on this stage just two years ago.

Tarr said she never had any concerns about nerves getting to the newcomers "because they're led by a bunch of people that are professionals and they show them the way. And the good thing about that is the freshmen just kind of follow. And while they might not realize they're doing what they're doing, they're following good leaders."

In Pohlman's case, for example, that has meant following second baseman Ashley Charters' lead -- literally.

"I watch her swing, I watch her leads, I watch her slap approach, just everything," Pohlman said of the redshirt senior. "She's an amazing player and I really, really look up to her."

Before the game against Georgia, Charters -- who showed a nation what teams in the Pac-10 had long known with her breakout performance in the 2007 WCWS -- asked her freshman protégée if she was nervous. Not so much. And while there might have been a little of youth's bravado in her self assessment, Pohlman wasn't denying the uniqueness of the surrounding as much as reveling in the atmosphere.

"It's great, it's crazy," Pohlman said. "I've played here before [in travel ball tournaments] but never on a stage that's been this big. Even the stands in the outfield, we drove up and it was just so much bigger than I was used to. But it's a lot of fun. You just kind of feed off the crowd's energy, and you have teammates there to back you up with everything."

And the truth is that by late May, this is the only new experience left for tried and tested freshmen like Williams and Pohlman.

Williams is essentially the fourth shortstop in a Washington infield that includes three current or former Pac-10 starting shortstops -- she played the position in high school and travel ball before shifting to third base and eventually first base at Washington. And despite learning a new position while battling some physical ailments and a hitting slump in conference play, she has six RBIs in seven NCAA tournament games, second on the team behind USA Softball Player of the Year Danielle Lawrie.

[+] EnlargeKimi Pohlman
University of Washington AthleticsKimi Pohlman has developed as a softball player with the Huskies.

"She's kind of been bulging a back injury all year," Tarr said. "It's been hard for her, hard for us, to really kind of grind things out and really work on things -- dive a lot and test her range. But I think she's done a pretty good job over at first for us."

The same goes for Pohlman in the outfield, a high school sprint champion in track and field who has flashed All-American potential in hitting .357 with 19 stolen bases as a freshman. Although highly recruited coming out of the Seattle area, Pohlman is nonetheless still a work in progress after splitting time between four sports in high school. And where she is now, driving in a run on the biggest stage, is a far cry from where she was last fall.

"It was really hard adjusting at first, coming from a really small school," Pohlman said. "I hurt my arm a little bit and I was really out of my own element. So in the fall, I'll admit, I sucked. I did. And then I came in and worked a lot over Christmas break; I had a lot of one-on-one time with coach Tarr and that really helped me build up my confidence."

Pohlman also talked about the benefits of having a coach like Tarr, someone who is herself not so very far removed from playing softball at the highest level for the Huskies. But as the coach surveyed the scene at Hall of Fame Stadium in the moments before Thursday's game, with fans lining up around the backstop and rising in a wave of brightly colored humanity for the national anthem, she was aware of how quickly the event and the sport have grown.

"It's becoming what it should become: a big-time, commercial event," Tarr said. "The TV -- when we played, I think we were on ESPN2, and I have a tape of when we lost the championship to Arizona and they cut out like two innings. … Now it kind of feels like a Major League Baseball-type of event; I was thinking about that before we started the game."

And as the products of a new decade begin to make their mark on the World Series, it's clear that the game waits for no one as it marches forward.

So there's no sense waiting your turn if you're a freshman.

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.