The most dominant Husky in any sport over the last couple decades -- who just became the fifth Husky and first Husky softball player to have her jersey retired -- has grown even closer to UW’s coach since she graduated in 2010. As Tarr says: “We were always going to have each other’s back.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Six years ago, immediately after Danielle Lawrie finished pitching in the Olympics, one of the first faces to greet her was that of Heather Tarr.
Lawrie was 21 then. The All-American had taken her junior season off from the Huskies to pitch for her native Canada in the 2008 Beijing Games. She had allowed just three runs and struck out 13 in 12 innings over two starts before her team lost in the medal round to Australia.
In the immediate aftermath of that defeat on the sport’s grand stage, Tarr was there for Lawrie. The fact Washington’s coach traveled halfway across the world for her pitcher, who hadn’t actually appeared in a game for the Huskies in 15 months, is just part of the reason they are bonded forever.
“I remember hugging Coach Tarr after the Olympics were over. We were in the ‘friends and family’ section,” Lawrie said last week of a private, cordoned-off part of Fengtai Softball Stadium in Beijing. “I just remember saying to her, ‘Get ready for next year, because nothing is going to get in our way.’
“And that was the truth.”
It figures Tarr was in the “friends and family” section of that Olympic softball stadium. She’s been both for Lawrie.
From years before that late-summer day in China when Lawrie foreshadowed Washington’s 2009 national championship, Tarr has been far more than her now-former coach.
“I look forward to being able to be a part of Heather's life, not only as someone who got to play for her in five short years, but to be someone that's there for the rest of her life.”
“I think our player-coach relationship changed a little bit in the summer of 2008 when J.T. and I went to China to watch her in the Olympics,” Tarr said, referring to her husband and Huskies assistant coach J.T. D’Amico. “We were there along with her parents as her support system. From that point, I think our relationship changed in a way that I cannot explain -- except for we were always going to have each other's back.
“I think the Canadian national team/Olympic year really changed her. She realized that at UW she was in a very, very good place with regards to coaching, teammates, support system, etc. And she also realized that she had everything she needed at UW to be great and to win the national championship with the people she wanted to be with.”
They are still the people she wants to be with. Lawrie, now 27, was beaming Friday afternoon while standing with her four-month-old daughter in front of the 2009 National Championship sign that is on the left-field wall at Husky Softball Stadium. Lawrie came back to UW last weekend from Boston, where she lives now with her husband Drew Locke, a former Houston Astros Triple-A outfielder, and their beyond-cute baby girl.
Little Madison had the three-time All-American and two-time national player of the year on melting into the turf of Husky Softball Stadium as they walked the grounds of her former home field. It was the day before UW made hers the first softball jersey retired in school history Saturday evening.
Tarr, 39, is entering the final regular-season series of her 11th year as coach for the Huskies, this weekend at California. Then Washington will appear in its 11th consecutive NCAA tournament with the coach who has led her alma mater to four Women’s College World Series. UW (30-13, 10-9 Pac-12) is ranked eighth in the USA Softball top 25.
This “special” former walk-on at Washington became a four-year letter winner, two-time participant in the Women’s College World Series, a two-time all-Pac-10 selection and three-time conference all-academic choice as a third baseman for the Huskies.
And she’s become more than a former coach to Lawrie. She’s a life-long friend, forever a part of the “Inner Circle” Tarr has created within the Huskies’ program.
“It’s been even better,” Lawrie said of her relationship with Tarr since she graduated in 2010 and entered a professional career playing in Japan and now for the National Pro Fastpitch’s USSSA Pride in Florida. “And it’s kind of nice because once you stop playing (for her) you can build a little more of a relationship when she is not just your coach.
“She was someone you can count on while she did coach you. If you had stuff going you could approach her and you knew that it was confidential and it wasn’t going to affect anything out there (on the field).
“I think that’s where so much of our success came. She was able to get a group of women and be able to individually motivate them and understand what you needed to know to get them going.
“Now that we are outside of that we are able to have a friendship that is going to be around forever.”
A TIP BECAME A COUP
So how did Lawrie get from Langley, British Columbia, to become UW’s first Canadian player in 2006 – and then the best Husky to ever pick up a softball? More to the point, how did she and Tarr form the friendship that has carried beyond Washington’s three Women’s College World Series in a row and its only national championship that they produced together as Huskies?
It started when Lawrie was 14, though she didn’t know it then.
Tarr was a young assistant at University of the Pacific in 2001 when Tom D’Amico (Tarr’s former 12-year-old Little League baseball all-star coach in Redmond, Wash.) told her about a player she should check out. The player was on a Northwest select-club softball team, Absolute Blast, coached by Eric Bolstad. Tarr contacted Bolstad and continued to stay in touch over the years about other players he had or saw.
In 2003, Bolstad told Tarr about this Canadian teenager he had seen pitch in a tournament in Tukwila, Wash.
“This pitcher, Danielle Lawrie, he said, threw the ball in a way that he'd never seen before,” Tarr said Tuesday night. “From this point, I had Danielle on my list. I also knew that she would be too big of a player to go to Pacific. So I wanted to make sure the UW knew about her.”
It was as great a tip as Washington athletics has ever received.
In an episode of perfect timing, UW hired Tarr to be its head coach the next year, in July of 2004. Days after taking the job, Tarr drove a couple hours north to White Rock, B.C., to see Lawrie pitch for Canada’s national team in the Canada Cup tournament.
“She was the first person I went after once I was hired,” Tarr said.
Lawrie and her parents, Cheryl and Russ (who were with Danielle and her growing family at UW last week for the jersey retirement) already had hosted Nebraska and Alabama for in-home visits. But the ace pitcher had yet to take the SAT for entrance into a U.S. college, so her official visits to any school had to wait until late fall of her senior year at Brookswood Secondary in Langley, on the east side of metropolitan Vancouver.
By then, she had already made multiple unofficial visits to UW. Tarr and the Huskies had the backyard advantage.
“She eventually decided she wanted to stay home and not visit those other schools,” Tarr said. “And the rest is history.”
It was then as it is now for Lawrie: All about family.
“I just always remember, I want to be close to home. I want my family to be able to watch me,” she said. “And once I took a visit down here there was no question: This is where I wanted to be.
“And Coach Tarr was just so personable. I felt so at home with her. I met her at the Canada Cup. I remember the conversation, how comfortable they made me feel and how they made my family feel. That’s stuff that’s important, because you are not just joining a program here. You are joining a family.
“That’s, for me, what really hit home for me.”
Home. That’s about the only thing that can hit Lawrie. And it hits her hard.
A BEAMING MOM
More than being only the fifth Husky player ever to have her jersey number retired, more than being a Husky legend and professional softball pitcher, she is a mom.
A very devoted, proud mom.
Lawrie was self-assured and family-first in her return to Husky Softball Stadium last week. The ace essentially said softball has been great. But coming back home soon to raise a family in the Pacific Northwest will be greater.
"I've always been a family girl at heart," Lawrie said with a chuckle three weeks before starting her season pitching for the USSSA Pride out of Kissimmee, Fla. "I'd like to have kids before that age, you know, when it gets a little harder."
She says she will play with the Pride "for sure this year, perhaps next year.
"It's an adjustment. This will be my first summer trying to juggle it all, and I think without help it's not possible."
Sounds like a job for a mom. Danielle's, in fact.
Lawrie's team's chief executive officer and general manager, Don DeDonatis, is permitting his star pitcher to bring her mother on each of the Pride's road trips. The team is paying for a separate living space and rental car for the Lawries and Danielle's baby in each road city this season, which begins May 30.
Locke, whom the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted out of Boston College in June 2005, is working for Oracle as an account manager for systems in Boston. That's near where he grew up in Weymouth, Mass.
As Danielle spoke Friday, dad and grandma were pushing a stroller with Winnie the Pooh attached to the side along the warning track.
"It's been a juggle just trying to get back into shape and manage how to take care of her, and my husband's working a full-time job, too," Lawrie said while standing just outside the Huskies’ Hubatting cages.
When she became pregnant last year she considered what she would need to be what she wanted to be: A mom first and a pitcher second. She went to DeDonatis and said to the Pride's owner, "If you want me to play, can you make this happen?"
"He was so supportive," she said.
"You don't really know what it's like until you have your own (child). So I've just been trying to soak up every minute with her. Ever since I've I had her, it's been going by so quick."
Sounds like her professional softball career will, too. Lawrie says her life plan is to move back to Washington "in the next year and a half and establish our life and raise our children."
"You just miss being around everybody," she said of the Huskies. "I mean, these guys are my family. They gave me the opportunity to come here and get a degree and let me meet people who are going to have a huge impact on the rest of my life.
"I just want to get back here. I want to be close to my family. I want to help the University of Washington softball program in whatever way I can. Because I want someone to come in and beat my records. I want the opportunity for them to win another national championship so badly. So any way I can help, that's what I want to do with this program."
“A PRO IN EVERYTHING SHE DOES”
She is the Huskies' career leader in wins, complete games, shutouts, and strikeouts. Her six no-hitters are the most among any individual Washington pitcher. She was astounding in 2009: 42-8 with a 0.97 ERA and 521 strikeouts in 352.2 innings. She led the Huskies to their first national championship and won her first of two consecutive USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year awards.
Her best memory of UW was not just beating Florida for the championship of the 2009 Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. It was the three-week run that led to that first national title. All of it came on the road, starting with an epic regional at Massachusetts. The Huskies overcome the 2,963-mile trip to Amherst, Mass., plus UMass' three-time All-American pitcher Brandice Balschmiter, to beat the Minutewomen twice in three games. The deciding game was Washington's 6-1 win in 15 innings, the night Lawrie struck out twenty-four while throwing more than 250 pitches. The Huskies had an easier time in their 2009 super regional match-up in Atlanta, sweeping Georgia Tech in two games.
"That whole journey made us so strong," Lawrie said. "It connected us for life.
"This is the coolest thing, being able to be back here. Just having the fans and, I mean, have so much family and so many friends that are going to be here ... I'm obviously extremely humbled by this opportunity. So many people to thank.
“I think the most impressive thing that Danielle has done for our program, for herself, and for the teams she was able to play with, was that she found a way to be a leader for her team, for her coaches – not only in her actions on and off the field, but in the circle and at the plate. She took the team and helped lead the team to do great things.”
"It's not just all about me. Without all the teammates, the friends, Coach Tarr recruiting me, then obviously none of this is even possible."
Within five years she wants to open a baseball and softball training academy in north Seattle with her brother Brett, a third baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays. She has no interest in having a job like Tarr’s; coaching would take her away from her family.
“She's so much more poised and polished now than before. She's such a pro in everything she does,” Tarr said, admiring what’s become of the Canadian teen she met 10 years ago. “She used to look at a lot of things as "I have to do this, or that" but over time, she learned to cherish everything and to realize that those ‘have to's’ are actually ‘get to's.’
“I think being a mom has calmed her down a tiny, tiny bit. But I haven't seen her with a ball in her hand since Madison was born, so I can't say how this has impacted her (in softball).
“I do know,” Tarr said of her best player and great friend, “that she has truly found herself being a mother and a wife. She's a natural, and I know that having a family completes her as a person.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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