- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. -- Imagine arguing a case in front of the United States Supreme Court a few weeks before you load up the futon and head for law school orientation, or making the first incision for a heart transplant shortly after handing in your last exam in "Intro to Biology."
In softball terms, that's about where Danielle Lawrie was in the summer of 2005. Still a few weeks shy of showing up for her freshman year at the University of Washington, Lawrie found herself standing in the circle with the ball in her hand and the heart of the order coming to bat for the United States national team.
Lawrie's response? No sweat, eh?
Just 18 years old, the native of British Columbia went out and beat the United States at the World Cup of Softball, striking out seven and scattering five hits in a stunning 2-1 upset for Canada that ended a three-year winning streak for the Americans.
"It was a good victory," Lawrie recalled with a matter-of-fact shrug at the recent Palm Springs Classic. "The catcher and I communicated great during that game, making sure that we talked every single time we came into the dugout. It was clear that everyone believed that we could do it. Because most people go into those sorts of games, playing that team, and they kind of look at who is on the jersey too much, rather than just play your game, hit your spots and do what you've got to do."
Precocious doesn't even begin to describe this hard-throwing Canadian who is just the latest in the line of sporting imports that even Lou Dobbs can't stop as they infiltrate our borders and beat out American-made players.
Not that everyone views such free trade as a negative development.
Heather Tarr, who at the time was a member of the University of the Pacific coaching staff, coveted Lawrie as she emerged on the recruiting radar in British Columbia. But Tarr knew Lawrie was a long shot get for her middle-tier program. Secretly, Tarr admits now that she hoped Lawrie would end up at her alma mater, Washington, if Pacific couldn't have her.
Little did Tarr know she'd be the one to make that happen.
Tarr succeeded interim co-coaches Scott Centala and Steve Dailey at Washington in July 2004, taking over a program that was struggling through a prescription drug scandal involving a former team doctor that effectively ended the tenure of longtime coach Teresa Wilson in December 2003.
There would be no better way to generate excitement about the future than by handing the ball to a fresh face with the potential to be a four-year ace. And Tarr knew exactly where to look. She convinced Lawrie, who wasn't being actively recruited by Washington at the time, but was a longtime fan of the program, to make an unofficial visit in the fall of 2004. It turned out to be an easy sell.
"It's always been kind of a place I wanted to be," Lawrie said as she recalled childhood trips to watch games in Seattle. "And when I got down on my [unofficial] visit, getting into the locker room right away and seeing the girls, everyone seemed cool. And I know everyone is supposed to on a recruiting trip, but it just kind of seemed more like home for me."
Just don't expect Lawrie to make that sense of home legally binding anytime soon. She is a Canadian through and through, and she's part of a young generation of Canadian female athletes who are opening eyes south of the border.
From former Utah standouts and current WNBA players Kim Smith and Shona Thorburn to former University of Portland soccer star Christine Sinclair and current Fresno State softball ace Robin Mackin, Canadians are starring in any number of women's team sports that don't involve ice skates. And they're raising Canada's profile on the international stage.
"Forever I'm going to be playing for the Canadian team," Lawrie said. "That's where I grew up and that's where I'm always going to be. That's where my family lives, my coaches, my fellow teammates. So it's something I take pride in every single day, being able to represent them. And growing up through that program, it helped me get where I am, and it's going to help a lot of other kids who are inspired to want to do the same thing."
Tarr credits Lawrie's work with the Canadian national program, including her now famous performance with the senior national team at the World Cup, as part of what turned her preternatural poise and persistence into refined excellence.
"You can't just have the physical tools," Tarr said. "She's obviously very strong and possesses some great, great skills physically, but the fact that she wants the ball and she wants to beat whoever it is that she's facing, that's a huge thing. She's got that little X factor in her that gets her going."
On the heels of her World Cup performance, Lawrie had little trouble taming college softball's best conference in 2006. She posted a 1.43 ERA with 387 strikeouts in 252.2 innings as a freshman and only got better as conference play progressed in the Pac-10.
"She actually improved over the Pac-10 season, which is not normal, one, for any pitcher, but two, it's definitely not normal for a freshman pitcher," Tarr said. "That was a pretty good sign of things to come from her, for her to able to lower her ERA throughout the Pac-10 season."
Despite an offense that scored just 234 runs -- well behind every Pac-10 team but cellar-dwelling Oregon -- the Huskies advanced to within two games of the Women's College World Series. And Lawrie might have carried them all the way to Oklahoma City if the Huskies hadn't run into one of the only teams in the country with better pitching in Cat Osterman and Texas.
In a return trip to the World Cup last summer, Lawrie helped Canada to a third-place finish, its best showing in a major international event (she didn't pitch in Canada's 6-1 loss to the United States in preliminary-round play). Lawrie has now set her sights on improving in a way that would help her just as much in a nonconference game against Wichita State as it would against the U.S. national team.
"The main thing I'm going to say is my fitness," Lawrie said. "As a pitcher, you always have to make sure that you're as fit as you can be for as many innings as you throw. There's two of us, right, so Cait [Washington teammate Caitlin Noble] and I are both going to be splitting the time, and that means pitching a lot of innings on a weekend. If it's two games or three games, you have to make sure that you're in the best shape you can be. So it's just making sure that I got into the weight room a little bit extra, got in some extra running, just cardio stuff like that."
Based on her nine-inning, 20-strikeout win against LSU on Saturday, which she followed up with three innings of scoreless relief for a save Sunday against the Tigers, Lawrie appears to have attacked that goal the same way she attacks hitters with her rise ball.
"She likes watching video -- she's a student of the game, she doesn't want to leave any stone unturned," Tarr said. "She's definitely taken care of the bases she needs to cover, which she did not do last year -- she didn't know, she didn't have the perspective."
Now she'll set her sights on bringing a national championship to Seattle and even more national pride to the Great White North.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Canadian export Danielle Lawrie was a force in the circle last season. She might just be unstoppable as a sophomore, writes Graham Hays.