Huskies' shuffled pieces fit perfectly
Washington softball's new players, positions working out well
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Washington was on the verge of making a slightly shorter night of its very long day at the Women's College World Series on Sunday.
Jennifer Salling had just doubled to the wall, bringing home Ashley Charters and Kimi Pohlman to extend Washington's lead to 9-3 in the bottom of the sixth inning of an elimination game against Georgia. At the plate stood Danielle Lawrie, who had already hit a grand slam earlier in the game. With another home run, she would have ended the game via the run rule and gotten out of the her remaining pitching duties after a mere 14.2 innings of work for the day, including 8.2 innings in an afternoon 9-8 loss against Georgia.
She gave the ball a ride, but when it settled harmlessly into the left-fielder's glove a few yards in front of the fence, it was back to work for one more inning in the circle.
The on-deck hitter when Lawrie made the inning-ending out, Morgan Stuart lingered a few extra moments to commiserate with the star on her near miss. It would also have been understandable if she just wanted to savor the entire scenario and the power of change.
Washington overcame another bout of adversity against Georgia and advanced to the championship series against Florida with an eventual 9-3 win in large part because of all its new, and newly reclaimed, parts. In addition to her stint of endurance in the circle against a tough Bulldogs lineup, Lawrie had the big hit that seized momentum early in the final game. Charters was her usual force in the leadoff spot, collecting three hits and scoring twice in the clincher. Salling had three hits and two RBIs, plus a number of stellar plays at shortstop. And freshman Niki Williams capped off a record-setting day in which she drove in eight runs in two games, while classmate Pohlman scored a pair of runs.
Lawrie missed last season while playing for the Canadian Olympic team. Charters missed it while recovering from hip surgery. And Salling, who also played with the Canadian team at the expense of her college season, didn't transfer to Washington until this spring.
"This season's been different because we have a bunch of senior leadership," Stuart, a sophomore, said. "This year, got to play alongside and get to know Ashley Charters a lot, get to play with Danielle. And they've been here; they've been to the World Series. So they kind of helped me along the way just realize that you have to take it all one step at a time. You don't have to hit a three-run home run every time you're up."
But if all the changes from last season's lineup are part of the story, the other part of it is those who the new dynamic affected in other ways. Players such as Stuart, who starred as a freshman at shortstop last season but found herself shuttled to a new position at third base this year to make way for Salling. And with six hits in Sunday's two games -- including a home run in the evening clincher -- and chances to show off her arm at the hot corner, Stuart showed just how well this team has managed to fit its jigsaw pieces together.
"I think it has taken her until now to really kind of embrace third base, and not know it just as a stepsister to shortstop," coach Heather Tarr said. "Know the intricacies, know the ins and outs of the position. And what a great time for her to figure out just how to play this position because she is such a talented athlete with such a great arm. Those plays that she's been making, 90 percent of the people that play the game can't make those plays."
With Stuart at shortstop last season, when she hit .288 with seven home runs an .885 OPS, a young lineup (a less kind term might be patchwork after both Charters and outfielder Lauren Greer were lost to injuries on top of Lawrie's absence) went 30-25 and exited the NCAA tournament in regionals a year after making the World Series for the first time under Tarr's young tenure. And while it's easy to look at it now as something of a lost year, it wasn't without its benefits, even if they came with the requisite lumps.
"Last year, I thought we could have made it to the super regionals with the team that we had," the Huskies' fifth-year coach said. "And although we didn't, I guess the give and take of not going where we wanted to go was the Morgan Stuarts, the Bailey Stensons -- those kids just getting the experience.
"And it was hard at times because you kind of looked down the bench and you don't have the Ashley Charters to [tell] like, 'Hey, get on Morgan, talk to Morgan about this that and the other.' We had to do it all. It was just a different way, and [Stuart] learned such great lessons just through experience because I can't teach the experience. You just have to go through it, and she's been through it."
A shortstop when Washington last appeared on the World Series stage, Charters has herself gone through the challenge of changing positions midstream in a career. Now firmly entrenched at second base, she can appreciate what Stuart faced in not only accepting the move but thriving in it.
"She's done a great job," Charters said of Charters. "Going from shortstop to another position is a little tough, but she transitioned very easily. It's awesome having her over there, just because it makes our team have that much depth. She's been great. She has the best arm I've ever seen; she has a frigging gun over there."
Washington has hardly taken the easy road to the championship series, although it has taken just about every other road along the way. After nearly three weeks away from Seattle, traveling first to Amherst, Mass., and then to Atlanta before advancing to Oklahoma City, the Huskies know their way around a hotel laundry room. And after needing 15 innings to escape an elimination game against Massachusetts and going to Sunday's must-win game against Georgia, they know how to prolong their experiences on the field, as well.
But when you've turned a standout freshman shortstop into a seasoned sophomore third baseman, adjusting to new circumstances is no big deal.
"We don't take the easy road anywhere we go," Tarr said. "I don't think that we could have gotten through [Sunday] had we not gone through what we did to get here."
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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