By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The sights and sounds of a University of Washington softball game leave no debate as to which Husky is idolized by just about every young fan wearing purple and gold. Senior pitcher Danielle Lawrie can bank on getting the loudest pre-game ovation, and replicas of her No. 15 jersey are scattered throughout the stands at every UW home game.
But when it comes to the true hero of this year’s top-ranked Huskies, Lawrie might find herself in the unfamiliar position of a backup.
Senior outfielder Alyson McWherter might not have Lawrie’s player-of-the-year trophy, her wealth of experience in international competition or her potential as a future professional. But McWherter has an even bigger possibility on her horizon: that of an American hero.
The senior from Lakes High School in Lakewood will cap off her playing career during the next few weeks, then begin a life in the military. McWherter is scheduled to work as an army recruiter this summer, to be in basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, in January and to report for duty with the Army’s Third Infantry Division in Fort Stewart, Ga., 11 months from now. And not long after that, she may well be at war.
“My passion is just doing whatever needs to be done in the moment,” said McWherter, who has been involved in ROTC at UW and will become a second lieutenant upon graduation next month. “Right now, it’s winning the national championship. If in four years it’s being overseas, then that’ll be what me and my team are trained to do. I’m not afraid to go, if I have to go.”
It could be said that Alyson McWherter was born to be a soldier. Every generation of McWherters has had at least one member of the military, dating back to the Civil War.
Her father, Len, was a lieutenant colonel in the army who fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Len’s father and three brothers all served in the military. Alyson’s maternal grandfather, Larry Zimmerman, is a retired colonel. And next month, when McWherter is honored at her June 11 official commission ceremony, great-grandfather Joe McWherter — a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War — will be the one giving her honorary first salute.
Military service definitely runs through the McWherter blood.
“I’ve always just had a desire to be a part of something bigger than myself,” she said. “… I don’t really know where that passion comes from. It’s just something that’s there, and you can’t really ignore it.”
Len McWherter didn’t necessarily peg Alyson, the oldest of his four daughters, for a soldier. But he’s seen leadership qualities in her from a young age.
“She’s always been pretty bossy,” he said. “She has a competitive edge, and we could see that pretty early.”
On the softball field, Alyson McWherter had to adjust to a different kind of role. The center fielder and No. 9 hitter learned to fall into rank when leaders like Lawrie and 2009 senior Ashley Charters stood up.
“It was hard to recognize that, on this team, I wasn’t the leader that I was in ROTC,” she said. “It was like that stupid video game, The Sims, where you get to pretend to be somebody else.”
McWherter’s military commitment already has come with plenty of sacrifice. Juggling school, softball and ROTC was a near-impossible task that left her, on more than one occasion, wondering whether she had too much on her plate.
“I definitely broke down and cried about it — at least once,” she said. “I’d go back and forth: Do I drop softball? Do I drop ROTC?”
In the end, Len McWherter would tell his daughter to sleep on the decision. And Alyson would inevitably wake up ready to push on.
She freely admits that her schoolwork was somewhat of a casualty of the over-balanced schedule, adding that the idea of a social life was pretty much impossible. There were Wednesday nights when she would be up until midnight studying, only to have to be up at 4:30 a.m. for her Thursday formation drills.
“You just had to keep telling yourself it was all going to be worth it,” she said. “And it has been. Last year, we won the national championship, and then I went to the leadership development course and finished second in a 450-person regimen. So the hard work definitely paid off.
“It was totally worth it. Despite all the heartaches, I’d definitely do it again.”
In order to make it work, McWherter had to get a little bit of help. She spent her summers working on field exercises with her father and some of his military buddies at Fort Lewis. Len McWherter said he didn’t mind volunteering his time, calling it “a bonus” because it gave him a rare chance to spend time with his over-committed daughter.
Len McWherter bursts with pride when talking about his daughter’s commitment to her country, but the retired lieutenant colonel has fatherly concerns when it comes to her military future.
“I don’t think any parent wants their child to go into harm’s way,” he said of the possibility that Alyson might one day be deployed for battle overseas. “I am proud of her because she’s chosen to serve her country, but I’m concerned, as a parent, that there are risks that go along with that. Her mom and I talked about that, and we just decided that she’s got to be who she is.”
Oddly enough, Alyson McWherter said that her other gig — that of a softball player — is the biggest source of stress in her life right now. She freely admits that her knees were shaking during an at-bat in the late innings of a close game at Arizona State over the weekend.
“It’s definitely stressful because anytime you love something so passionately, the fear of losing is always scary,” she said. “… But ultimately, (being in the military) allows me to get over a game, over a mistake quicker and easier. When you do put it in perspective, the life that I’m going to lead after this is going to be a little bit more stressful and a little bit more demanding.”
McWherter knows that her next two losses will mark the end of her softball career. Then she’ll dedicate her life to a more heroic pursuit.
Only she doesn’t necessarily see herself that way.
“No, I haven’t done anything,” she said with a shrug when told that some people might consider her a hero. “I’ve got a specific role on a team that does great things. And I’m a part of an organization that helps great leaders become even better than they are. With the help of them, it enables me to be part of a great team.
“I wouldn’t consider that heroic. I’m just a 22-year-old kid that’s playing softball and in the army. I haven’t done anything of superior magnitude.”
And as for her All-American teammate who gets all the attention, McWherter doesn’t mind the idol-like praise that follows Lawrie wherever she goes.
“Hero is hard to define, period,” McWherter said. “But as far as softball goes, Danielle is a hero to a lot of girls — and rightfully so. I’ve never seen someone work as hard as she does to be as great as she is. There are a lot of people that recognize they’re good at something and then coast. Danielle keeps pushing.
“… In those respects, she’s definitely a hero. I’d call her a hero.”
And Lawrie carries a lot of respect for what her teammate has done as well.
“I wouldn’t be able to balance it,” Lawrie said. “That’s stressful, and softball is stressful enough for me.
“But I’ve never seen her look stressed. That’s the cool thing: she wears it and does what she does.”