By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Better late than never.
That’s how the University of Washington softball team is approaching its newfound confidence and unexpected run in the NCAA tournament.
“It would’ve been nice to turn it around sooner,” Huskies coach Heather Tarr said Wednesday as her team prepared to face top-ranked Cal in an NCAA regional in Berkeley this weekend, “but no time like NCAA tournament to put your true game together.”
That the Huskies (39-17) are still playing comes as a surprise to just about everyone but themselves. A 4-16 finish over the final five weeks of Pacific-12 Conference play left UW in a tailspin heading into last weekend’s super-regional, and yet now only one opponent separates the Huskies from their third College World Series appearance in four seasons.
“This,” Tarr said, “is what we’ve been playing for all year long.”
And yet playing in another College World Series seemed like the least likely scenario for this year’s Huskies through April and the first half of May. A five-week slump and seven consecutive losses to end the regular season left UW in eighth place in the nine-team Pac-12, with no life raft in sight heading into the postseason.
But a stellar preseason, and some late stumbles by teams in other parts of the country, helped the Huskies earn the right to host last weekend’s super-regional. And UW went on to beat Harvard (twice) and Texas Tech by a combined score of 8-0 to advance.
“We feel like our energy was where it should have been all year,” senior outfielder Taylor Smith said about the successful turnaround. “I don’t know what took it that long. The energy in the dugout was unreal, and now we’re in a good spot to keep it rolling.”
Tarr admitted that the late-season collapse forced her to question her own strategies and take a long look at how she was handling the team. But in the end, her team snapped out of its funk when it mattered most.
“Did it kill us? No, it didn’t,” she said of the late-season swoon. “We proved to ourselves that we know how to compete, that we didn’t forget how to play the game.”
Standing in the Huskies’ way now is a team that is generally considered the favorite to win this year’s national title and which already has a three-game sweep of the Huskies under its belt. Cal (54-5) won its most recent three super-regional games by an aggregate score of 25-2 after getting upset by Arkansas early in that tournament.
UW’s Tarr is quick to point out that all three Husky losses to the Bears were close, including a 2-1 defeat March 30 that saw the Huskies come within one strike of winning the game before Cal rallied with two runs in the bottom of the seventh.
“By and large, if this team worries about itself and plays to its capabilities,” Tarr said, “we can play with anybody.”
This weekend, the Huskies will try to prove that they can play with the best team in the nation. They’ve been close twice but have yet to have Cal’s number.
After the way the regular season went, all UW cares about now is that it still has a chance.
“We’ve got the talent,” Tarr said. “It hasn’t come through every game, but we can do even more than we’re showing.”