Flying across the country to beat fifth-seeded Florida twice this weekend and gain a spot in the Women’s College World Series? Just the latest challenge in four remarkable years of pitching, pride and pain for softball’s co-aces Kaitlin Inglesby and Bryana Walker. “They’ve been through a lot of (stuff).”
By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – They are the Huskies’ dual pitching powers, the two biggest keys to whether UW advances this weekend to yet another Women’s College World Series.
Kaitlin Inglesby and Bryana Walker teamed up last week to shutout three NCAA tournament regional opponents on eight hits over 16 innings as Washington won by a combined 26-0. Inglesby threw two complete games and Walker tossed all five innings of the Huskies’ 9-0 win over Brigham Young on Friday.
To be sure, pitching and defense win national softball championships. That fact pins most of 12th-seeded Washington’s hopes against fifth-seeded Florida in the super regionals that begin Saturday in Gainesville onto these two, wind-milling, right arms.
Florida (48-11) was even more dominant in its home regional last week, going 3-0 by a combined score of 29-0. Yet Inglesby and Walker aren’t likely to be spooked by this latest challenge.
Each has plowed through personal obstacles far taller than opposing batters.
As coach Heather Tarr said before her Huskies (36-13) departed Wednesday for the other coast to prepare there for the best-of-three series on the Gators’ home field: “Bryana and Kaitlin have been through a lot of (stuff) in their lives.”
Before Inglesby – 15-4 with a 1.90 ERA in 32 games, 19 starts this season -- got to UW she was nicknamed “Triple Threat” growing up in Portland, Ore.
"I was in the first grade and I had glasses, braces -- and hearing aids. And my friends always joked, `Oh, `Triple Threat' is coming! She's got one thing after another,’” Inglesby told me for this 2012 story on just how remarkable she is.
"The thing I was most ashamed about were the glasses, not the hearing aids. They were the big ones. The BIG ones. Not too thick. but just, Here comes Kaitlin!"
The 22-year old takes daily medication to treat a thyroid condition. She had a 3.83 grade-point average last quarter -- even though she can't hear much of what she is being taught.
Inglesby is 85-percent deaf in each ear. She relies on hearing aids and lip reading to not only get by, but to excel on and off the field.
Walker? She gets by on friends, teammates, coaches and family.
They provide the integral support Walker – 19-8 with a 1.62 ERA in 35 games, 27 starts -- never thought she needed. Until she became a Husky, that is. That was after she said no to Princeton.
A couple months before her freshman season at UW she sustained an injury to her shin. Surgeons inserted a 10-inch rod into her leg. That cost her the first two weeks of that initial season. She lost a chance to make a huge impression upon her new teammates and coaches in the competition with Inglesby to succeed national player of the year Danielle Lawrie as the Huskies’ ace.
Then, while Walker was idling and frustrated by the shin injury, her father passed away from cancer. He had been gravely ill for months, and his death came three weeks before the Huskies’ 2011 opener. Bryana is the only one of Lee Walker’s and Karen Lopez’s four children with her dad’s last name, among brothers Tony Lopez, Tim Kitsman and sister Rebecca Lopez.
“That was my turning point. I asked for help, and I got a lot of it from so many great, supportive people. There is such a great support system here at U-Dub.”
On the eve of her first college games, in her first months away from her California home on a new campus on the opposite coast from where she thought she’d be going to school, she lost her ability to play – then lost her dad.
“I was,” she said Monday, “an emotional wreck.”
How did she get through it?
Friends. Including her dearest one.
“My mom’s been my biggest fan and my best friend,” Bryana said with a proud grin.
“Growing up I always tried to be super independent. I was always thinking and telling people ‘I can handle anything.’ Well, that freshman year, I learned I couldn’t handle everything.”
That’s a lesson that will serve her far beyond this postseason and throughout her adult life.
“I learned how to ask for help,” she said. “That was my turning point. I asked for help, and I got a lot of it from so many great, supportive people. There is such a great support system here at U-Dub.”
That system includes Tarr and her assistant coaches. It includes UW’s renowned academic services department, plus Walker’s teammates. Their unique, “inner circle” of camaraderie spawns deep understanding of shared experiences.
Walker’s career is a true, lasting team event.
“It’s definitely been a different road,” Walker said before practice Monday at Husky Softball Stadium. “Being able to come so far is truly amazing. It’s showed me how much I can overcome -- and the power of having people to support you.”
UW OVER PRINCETON
No major college programs recruited the 2010 all-California Interscholastic Federation pitcher for softball. But the advanced-placement scholar with an international-baccalaureate diploma plus chemistry and math awards at La Quinta High School, between Palm Springs and Indio, was accepted into Princeton.
Very late in that recruiting year – so late the biggest softball signees were already bound to top programs by letters of intent – Tarr learned a pitching recruit wasn’t going to make it to UW because of academics. That freed up a scholarship spot for Washington to offer to Walker.
Walker hadn’t signed with Princeton because Ivy League schools don’t use the National Letters of Intent system in recruiting. They don’t need to; most times if a student-athlete is accepted into an Ivy, they go.
Well, as might be evident by now, Walker’s different.
Once she got the 11th-hour scholarship offer from UW she said goodbye to Princeton and the Ivy League. For her, the draw of playing for one of the nation’s premier softball programs and getting an education from one of America’s top public universities were too good to pass up.
By sophomore she was splitting starts with Inglesby, creating a 1 and 1A for Tarr in the circle. In mid-February of this season Walker was the Louisville Slugger/NFCA national player of the week. She joined Inglesby and Danielle Lawrie, the 2009 national champion, as the only Huskies in five years to win that award. Walker went 4-0 with a 0.33 ERA and 30 strikeouts over 21 innings while the then-No. 2 Huskies went 5-0 at the Littlewood Classic in Tempe, Ariz.
Now she’s an academic All-Pac-12 player who has piled up 144 strikeouts in 142 2-3 innings. She’s got a 3.61 cumulative grade-point average in four academic years. And she is one step from getting the Huskies back to the national finals in Oklahoma City.
“I definitely thought four years ago that I was going to be graduating from Princeton University, that my softball career would already be over and I’d be going off to some office somewhere to start my job,” she says.
“Now I look at it, I’m getting ready to go to the super regionals. I’ve played in a College World Series. It’s crazy to think that all this has happened to me here.”
AN ADVOCATE AND A FRIEND
UW has rebounded smartly from early season losses and injuries to three starting catchers this season to win 12 times in 13 games heading into this super regional. Rarely in their 21 NCAA tournament appearances (in the 22-year history of the tournament) have the Huskies blown through a regional like they did last week at home.
Inglesby and Walker have been in the middle of it all.
It’s been that way since each got to Washington.
Ever wonder why Inglesby wears a faceguard when she pitches? In her third practice at UW, August of 2010, she got every major bone is her face, 47 bones in all, shattered by a line drive that was traveling about 60 miles per hour off the bat of now-fifth-year senior Hooch Fagaly. The ball hit Inglesby in the left eye, yet the impact broke the other eye socket and upper jaw bones, as well. She had two nose surgeries. It took six days before she could open her left eye.
Just another obstacle for her to bull through.
UW had an enrollment of 42,428 at the start of the Fall 2011 academic quarter. Only 25 had a documented hearing impairment. Inglesby was the only deaf student-athlete among the more than 600 Huskies competing in 21 sports that has registered with UW's Disability Resources for Students office.
That office provides the student volunteer note takers Inglesby often uses to keep up with her colleagues as professors' lessons roll on - whether Inglesby hears them or not.
She has said: "Yeah, I consider myself a member of the disabled community. I'm not afraid to say that. It's part of who I am.
"I want to advocate for people who don't have the opportunities that I have, that you can do whatever you want to do if you put yourself and your mind to it."
People such as 11-year-old Keller Howard.
ESPN and reporter Holly Rowe produced a video feature after the Huskies played at the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City last June. Natalie and Doug Howard were sitting with their children in their OKC home watching on television a game Inglesby was pitching. Their son, Keller, noticed Inglesby was wearing hearing aids – just like he does.
They contacted UW’s director of softball operations, Amy LeFurgy. LeFurgy arranged for Keller to come to the stadium in Oklahoma City to meet Inglesby. The family attended Washington’s WCWS games that week. Keller held signs such as “Kait #13 is the Bomb!”
Inglesby and Keller are now great cyber pals, texting and e-mailing regularly.
Yes, Inglesby is so impactful she can even forge a positive, enriching relationship between civic enemies Seattle and Oklahoma City.
“WE ARE SO PROUD”
After all they’ve experienced at UW – the pain of losing a father, of a line drive smashing a face, of a wrecked shin, of strikeouts and striking up friendships with strangers with shared conditions – Walker and Inglesby are counting on a few more treasured moments.
Perhaps ones that begin Saturday in Gainesville, Fla., just after 9 a.m. Pacific time, and last through the first week of June at the Women’s College World Series in Keller’s hometown.
Then on June 14 inside Husky Stadium, Inglesby (3.13 cumulative GPA) will receive her anthropology degree with an emphasis in medical anthropology and global health. Walker graduated in the winter – her GPA in her final quarter was a sterling 3.76 -- but since she’s in a spring sport NCAA rules are allowing her play her senior season and then walk in graduation. She’ll get her diploma the same Saturday Inglesby gets hers, in psychology.
Walker and Inglesby are counting on a few more treasured moments.
Both were drafted this winter into the National Pro Fastpitch league, Walker ninth overall by Pennsylvania Rebellion and Inglesby 14th overall to the Akron Racers. But Inglesby has been selected for a highly sought-after internship this summer at the Pac-12’s headquarters in San Francisco. She will working with the conference’s marketing director.
“I’m very excited!” she said.
Walker will spend part of this summer in a three-week program at the University of Chicago’s prestigious Booth School of Business, for which Walker received a scholarship. Her degree is in psychology. She wants to get into consumer behaviors and market research -- why people buy what they buy – and intends to apply to graduate school in the fall of 2015.
“I’m really fascinated by people and understanding their behavior,” she said. “Why did choose this product or this brand? That’s what I want to work on.”
For now, she and Inglesby are working on capping their determined UW careers with another trip to the national finals.
“It’s something that we’ve worked for to have in our program, two pitchers to provide us the opportunity to be versatile in a game or series,” Tarr said. “We are so proud of how much they’ve progressed as pitchers.
“And as people.”
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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