Moments don’t get much hotter during NCAA softball’s regular season.
The top-ranked University of Washington Huskies were trailing the No. 9 Arizona Wildcats 3-2 in the bottom of the sixth inning on March 24 at Husky Softball Stadium, in danger of seeing their perfect home record spoiled. Arizona was determined to make it happen, bringing ace pitcher Taylor McQuillin into the game to lock it down.
For most freshmen leading off the inning it would be a struggle not to wilt under the pressure. Emma Helm had a different reaction.
“I was the first one to hit against her and I was like, ‘Yes!’” Helm recalled. “I was really excited because we had watched a lot of film on her and I felt like I had a grip on what I needed to do. So I was really pumped in that moment.”
So pumped that the Meadowdale High School graduate lofted a fly ball the opposite way to left-center for her first collegiate home run, tying the score and sending the game to extra innings, where she happened to score the winning run in the eighth by chugging all the way around from first base on Taryn Atlee’s double.
No, Helm wasn’t supposed to be making immediate waves for one of the best college softball teams in the country. But circumstances thrust Helm into the spotlight, and the first-year catcher is proving she belongs.
“It’s basically like a freshman-aged person playing in the big leagues, it’s not easy,” Washington coach Heather Tarr said. “But she’s continuing to get better and better.”
Helm was a star during her time at Meadowdale. She was a three-time first-team All-Wesco selection — as the rare left-handed catcher — and she led the Mavericks to the 3A state title as a junior in 2016, homering in the championship game as Meadowdale claimed its first ever softball state title. She went on to be named the Herald’s 2016 Softball Player of the Year.
But despite all the high school accolades, Helm wasn’t supposed to be much of a factor at Washington this season. The Huskies had an all-conference caliber returning catcher in junior Morganne Flores, who led the Pac-12 in RBI in 2017. It was assumed Helm would spend two years as a back-up as she gradually worked her way into significant playing time.
That all changed in January when Flores tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee during practice just before the season began. Suddenly the Huskies needed a catcher.
“I came in knowing Morganne Flores was someone who I looked up to so much and I wanted to learn from,” Helm said. “So I thought this year would be a lot about learning from her and watching, then playing my role wherever I needed to. Obviously [Flores’ injury] was terrible and I won’t wish that to happen again, but it was just taking that opportunity and finding it in myself to step up.”
Helm wasn’t asked to shoulder the load immediately. When the season began she was splitting starts at catcher evenly with junior Rachel Ogasawara, batting toward the bottom of the lineup when she was in it.
But on Feb. 25 in a game at Long Beach State everything changed. Helm started and was moved up to the No. 5 spot in the batting order. She’s been a fixture there ever since, whether she’s starting behind the plate or serving as the designated player.
“We needed to settle on someone to hit behind our two seniors in the lineup, Kirstyn Thomas and Julia DePonte,” Tarr said about why she chose that moment to commit to Helm. “Throughout the pre-conference Emma maybe wasn’t achieving the batting average or power numbers she ultimately can or will, but you could tell from her presence in the box that she really knew her swing. She was having really good at bats and quality plate appearances, and that was the deciding factor.”
Helm has rewarded that decision as she’s batting .286 with three home runs and 16 RBI in 38 games. She’s been particularly adept at getting on base, drawing 20 walks to bump her on-base percentage up to .432.
Helm has also been an asset behind the plate. Washington’s catchers have a challenging job as the Huskies’ primary two pitchers, junior Taran Alvelo and freshman Gabbie Plain, are polar opposites, with Alvelo being the power pitcher and Plain being the offspeed pitcher. Helm has handled the challenge well, including catching Plain’s perfect game against Utah on April 7.
“It’s difficult sometimes,” Helm said with a laugh about catching Alvelo and Plain. “I don’t even know. It’s just really different because with one it’s going down and a little slower, and the other is way over my head super hard. So it’s definitely a challenge.”
But it’s a challenge Helm has been up to, even as a freshman who planned on spending most of her time on the bench this year.
“I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum,” Helm said. “There have been ‘Aha’ moments where I’ve thought, ‘I’m here and it’s wonderful.’ Then sometimes I’m like, ‘Am I really supposed to be here?’ You’re always trying to find that balance of what you’re thinking.”
But based on the results Helm is definitely meant to be there, and she’s poised to be an impact player on a top team for a long time.
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