- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- And a child shall lead them. At least at the plate.
None of the players and coaches on this year's Northwestern team were around Evanston the last time the softball program went to the Women's College World Series in 1986, but freshman shortstop Tammy Williams wasn't around, period.
Born in June of the following year, Williams is a picture of boundless exuberance, youthful optimism and fresh-faced enthusiasm at 18 years old.
You know, all of those things that people assume are meant as compliments, even though they seem to serve little purpose other than reminding the rest of us exactly how old we're getting to be and how much even bounded optimism hurts the next morning.
But in a sports world where young stars are often encouraged to act like grizzled veterans and exhibiting enthusiasm is viewed as a poor substitute for grim-faced solemnity passing as dedication, Williams is a change of pace and a welcome relief. She hits like a senior and enjoys the game like a kid.
So it was hardly surprising when, stepping to the plate moments after UCLA had tied Northwestern with a two-out, two-strike RBI single in the bottom of the seventh inning of Sunday's game in the Women's College World Series, Williams responded to the perceived magnitude of the moment by crushing a pitch over the left-field fence to give Northwestern a lead it would not relinquish and a spot in the championship series against Arizona (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET).
Williams isn't Northwestern's savior; she's just their slugger.
A bundle of energy, whether constantly shifting her feet and checking her glove between pitches in the infield or swinging a bat behind the grandstand before games, the girl with the brilliant red hair is impossible to miss.
"Besides the hits and runs, I think what makes Tammy such a big part of this team is the energy she brings," Northwestern coach Kate Drohan said. "She loves this game, and she loves to be on the field. And it really shows in how she plays."
Which is exactly why Drohan, among others, deserves so much credit for helping Williams develop into such a unique talent on the field without bludgeoning any of the energy and joy out of her game.
As a result, the Wildcats enter the championship series against Arizona with a shortstop hitting .380 on the season with 41 RBI and a team-leading 14 home runs, an offensive weapon every bit the equal of Arizona stars Caitlin Lowe and Kristie Fox.
It could have turned out differently. In fact, it's hard to imagine it turning out the way it has at most other major programs if the same situation had presented itself.
Coming off a 42-18 season in 2005 that both raised expectations for the program and left people with a bitter taste in their mouths following a surprising exit against DePaul in the super regionals, Drohan needed a quick fix at shortstop following the departure of Stephanie Churchwell. A .406 hitter who led the team in total bases last season, Churchwell left the program before her eligibility was up to return closer to home in California.
Enter Williams, a converted pitcher who was toiling at third base for her travel team coming out of El Dorado Springs, Mo., a town that she admits in the Northwestern media guide has more cows than people.
"I loved Kate when I met her," Williams said of her initial recruitment. "I loved the way that she approached me; she approached me correcting what I was doing on the field, instead of trying to sell the program. I loved that. I thought she was telling me the truth, not being fake."
Drohan, who recalled thinking Williams had far too much range to be playing third base instead of shortstop, quickly moved the freshman to the middle of the infield on a full-time basis and immediately solved a potential headache.
"I just played third through last summer, so it was kind of a new transition no matter what, playing infield," Williams said. "But it wasn't too bad. Kate and Caryl [Caryl Drohan, Kate's twin sister and associate head coach] really worked with me all year, all fall, making sure I was ready."
And that's about as far as the molding went for the Drohans, leaving much of Williams' development in the hands of the freshman and her teammates. It's an outlook that stands in stark contrast to some of the game's more domineering coaches.
"We have a really unique philosophy," Drohan said. "When they come in as freshmen, I say, 'OK, you're going to be treated like adults and I expect the same in return.' They're smart kids. I don't motivate through fear. I explain to them what we're trying to do, I tell them how we're going to do it. I tell them what they need to do to get us there, and so when you continually work like that, look them in the eye and allowing them to ask questions, allowing them to ask questions like, 'Why?'"
It's the kind of philosophy that breeds mentors like the one Williams found in junior first baseman Garland Cooper, although as best anyone can tell, the Drohans can't claim credit for the brilliant red hair that also links Cooper and Williams.
"I feel like she helped me a lot off the field in the fall, which gave me a lot of trust," Williams said of Cooper, who this season was voted Big Ten Player of the Year for the second year in a row. "She's been like a sister to me. The entire year, just taking me under her wing. Anything I need, she's done for me or helped me out."
Her face beamed with obvious pride that belied her casual tone, as Williams added, "And I think I'm a lot like her."
Had she heard, it's entirely possible that Cooper, who during the main postgame press conference had joked that she hit a home run immediately after Williams against UCLA only because she didn't want to be upstaged by a freshman, might have rolled her eyes and threatened to stuff the freshman she affectionately dubbed "Mini-Me" in a locker.
But she would have been smiling, simply because it's difficult not to smile in the presence of Williams' infectious good nature.
"Besides the hits and runs, I think what makes Tammy such a big part of this team is the energy she brings. She loves this game, and she loves to be on the field. And it really shows in how she plays."
Northwestern coach Kate Drohan
It's a camaraderie and affection that pervades the entire roster, a bond that has played a big role in bringing the Wildcats to the brink of a national championship that few outsiders thought possible.
"I mean, it was great that we were coming, and I don't think a lot of people expected us to actually be here, but we definitely knew that we had the ability to come down here and win," Williams said. "We just didn't want anyone to look over us, and we for sure weren't going to come down here and enjoy two games. We were in it to win."
From senior leadership to freshman slugging, everyone on the team seems to have a role, and nobody is asked to fill a role beyond the one for which she's best suited.
"We have an excellent group of seniors who have perspective," Drohan said. "They understand what happened their freshman year, when they barely made it to the Big Ten tournament -- you know, we were fighting for that half game to make it in. So that, balanced with their unbridled enthusiasm, really is a neat combination, because we have people who will lead and people who will follow.
"And they give each other enough space to do their own thing, to actually be themselves," the coach concluded. "It's a very safe, very trusting environment, where people can be vulnerable, which enables them to take risks. And that's the way you see Tammy Williams playing right now, because she feels so safe with this group."
Safe to be a freshman with a nose stud and a smile as wide as Lake Michigan. Safe to be a bright kid with a statistics final and a paper in African-American lit awaiting her return to Evanston.
And safe to be a freshman who continues hitting the daylights out of a softball.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.