SEATTLE — On the way to being one of just five teams that have been a part of the past two College World Series, the University of Washington softball team certainly did things the hard way.
The Huskies endured the longest road trip in school history during the 2009 NCAA regionals, eventually surviving and going on to win the program’s first national championship. Last season, UW bounced back from a humbling loss to Oklahoma in a super-regional at home and clawed its back into the CWS.
This time around, the Huskies might have the most difficult road yet.
While UW (34-14 and seeded 12th in the tournament) gets to play host to a regional when the NCAA tournament begins today, the Huskies haven’t been quite the juggernaut they’ve been in years past. A sixth-place finish in the eight-team Pac-10 Conference, along with a 2-5 record to close out the regular season, has UW looking less invincible than ever.
“Yeah, we didn’t do as great as we wished,” junior power hitter Niki Williams said, “but it’s almost a plus for us because now, going into the postseason, people don’t expect us to do well. And that’s exactly what we plan on doing.”
If the Huskies have anything on their side, it’s experience. Not only has UW made it to back-to-back College World Series, but the Huskies know what it takes to fight back from adversity in getting there.
“Our team, if you look at the past, this is the time when we shine the most,” senior Jenn Salling said Wednesday. “When the times get tough, we get tougher. That’s what makes our team so great: we strive, and we hope, for adversity.”
On paper, the Huskies haven’t been playing like a national-championship contender as of late. A road loss to Stanford, followed by a home sweep at the hands of top-ranked Arizona State, had UW riding a four-game losing streak heading into last weekend’s series at Oregon State. The injury-plagued Huskies salvaged two out of three games in that series, including a come-from-behind victory in the finale, and so they’re not ready to call themselves a struggling unit heading into postseason play.
“I think we did a really good job of building up momentum, especially in that last game against OSU,” leadoff hitter Kimi Pohlman said. “That kind of gave us the momentum we need.”
This year’s Huskies have had to move on without two-time player of the year Danielle Lawrie, whose pitching almost single-handedly made UW a favorite in most every game it played in recent years. Freshman Kaitlin Inglesby leads a pitching staff that ranked last in the Pac-10 in ERA (3.49) during conference play.
A 9-12 record in the Pac-10 marked the first time since 2008 that the Huskies have finished below .500 in conference play, so it’s difficult to compare this team to recent UW juggernauts.
In one national poll, six other Pac-10 teams are ranked higher than the Huskies — which says as much about the wealth of talented teams in the conference as it does any UW fall from grace.
“People don’t really know what we’re made of yet,” Pohlman said, “and I think that’s really cool.”
Coach Heather Tarr said the notion of UW being an underdog is a bit far-fetched.
“Once you win a national championship, everybody remembers that,” said Tarr, who coached the 2009 team to a national title. “That’s what separates some programs from the others that maybe haven’t won one yet. We don’t really get anyone’s worst game. They play us hard.”
What Tarr will admit is that this year’s Huskies don’t walk around with quite the same target that they carried as defending national champions last season.
“It’s definitely a different perspective not having the No. 1 ranking all year long,” she said. “For the athletes in our program last year, that became kind of an unsaid big deal. It was a good burden, but it was a heavy one for us to try to uphold. Eventually, it kind of wore us out a little bit last year. Definitely, a different perspective for us this year.”
First-round opponent Portland State (34-16) might be the true underdog in today’s game, but the Vikings aren’t exactly quaking at the thought of facing UW.
“One thing I’ve learned from playing softball is that anyone can beat anybody on any given day,” said PSU infielder Carly McEachran, a sophomore from Mill Creek. “So who knows?”
In a span of three years, the Huskies have taken a bumpy road from underdog to prohibitive favorite and back again. Needing at least 10 more wins to lock up another national championship, UW certainly has its work cut out for it in the coming weeks.
“We’ve been the underdog a few times this year, and I think our team likes being the underdog,” Salling said. “It’s always fun upsetting people.
“Either way. We’re OK with being the top dog or the underdog. Whatever it is, throw it our way.”