2000 Softball Preview
Jan. 21, 2000
SEATTLE - How many years must pass before a program reaches the stage of maturity? How many campaigns must begin before one ends with a win? How many seasons must conclude before a team stops counting the few years in its history and starts counting its championships? Washington softball coach Teresa Wilson thinks "Eight is Enough."
When the eighth version of the Husky softball team reconvened for fall practice in preparation for the 2000 season, the atmosphere was a bit different than Wilson had seen in her previous 13 years of coaching. After its anticipated charge toward the 1999 NCAA title fell one run short in the championship game, the senior-laden squad seemed to be marching to the beat of the same drummer as it had at the end of last season.
"This group worked out over the summer better than any other group I’ve coached, and it showed this fall," Wilson stated. "I’ve never had a team come back and feel like it picked up where it left off. It’s like we never left the field. Instead of starting a new book, it just feels like we’re writing a different chapter."
UW has advanced to the College World Series semifinals or final each of the past four years, appearing in the championship bout in 1996 and 1999. Washington made a bit of a splash in its infancy, with votes in the national poll coming late in its inaugural campaign and its string of six playoff berths beginning its second year. But, although success has come rapidly for the Huskies, their ultimate goal—a national championship—has yet to be reached.
"We have put ourselves in position to win four times, and each time we just haven’t gotten the breaks," Wilson explained. "There are several factors that go into winning a championship. First, you have to have talent. Second, you have to peak at the right time. Third, you have to stay injury-free. And fourth, you have to be just a little bit lucky. We’ve been close to having all four factors in place twice, in 1996 and 1999. We’ve just not been real lucky."
The six seniors and their 12 teammates are determined to change the luck of the Huskies this year. Led by a trio of All-Americans, pitchers Jamie Graves and Jennifer Spediacci and shortstop Rosie Leutzinger, the senior class has continued the Husky legacy during its time at Washington. That group, also including first baseman Melissa Downs, catcher Jeanine Giordano and center fielder Erin Helgeland, has established the Huskies as national contenders year after year.
But this is the season on which the Dawgs have their focus. Not only is the 2000 squad deeper and more talented than any previous Washington team, it has a combination of talent, experience, focus, direction and a sense of urgency that has yet to be seen by Wilson, and the sextet on the eve of finishing their careers are leading the pack.
"You never really understand what it feels like to be a senior and know this is your last year until it happens to you," Wilson explained. "When you’re a senior, everything else takes a back seat. Collectively, the six amaze me. They are so different, and yet they compliment each other so well. I remember thinking that no group could replace the class of ’96 and what they did for the program. But this group has solidified Washington as a force in college softball."
A diverse but interesting blend of personalities and talents, the senior class seems to prove the adage that opposites attract. For instance, on the mound, Graves is the picture of consistency. The lefty set the UW season record for lowest ERA last year with a 0.76 mark, throwing strikes and hitting her marks with amazing accuracy. She has walked just 75 batters in three seasons, and in 1999 her strike to walk ratio was an amazing 7.8:1.
Spediacci, on the other hand, prefers to take her chances with simply whiffing the batter. The right-handed co-captain established the UW season and career records for strikeouts last year, finishing with 250 for the season and 578 in three years. She holds the Husky standard for lowest averages allowed in a career in batting (.177) and slugging (.237) and shares the mark for wins in a season (27). With a combined ERA of 0.88 in 1999, neither gives opposing offenses much to write home about.
"Jamie and Jennifer are such a good combination," Wilson marveled. "Jennifer is the essence of intensity and power, with speed and sharp break on the ball. She’s an aggressive pitcher and has a bit of dazzle about her. Jamie, meanwhile, is the model of consistency. She goes out and does her job. She’s not flashy, she’s not the poster girl for anybody. But I’ve known for four years that I can hand her the ball any day of the week and she’s going to keep us in the game."
Two other fixtures in the lineup throughout their careers, Giordano and Leutzinger bring other elements to the table. A two-year co-captain, Giordano acts as the defensive leader behind the plate, gathering the team for instruction or encouragement as the situation necessitates. Her defense is near perfect, holding UW records in best fielding percentage for a season (.998) and a career (.994). Giordano committed just one error last year in 434 chances.
Leutzinger, meanwhile, has hit in the leadoff spot the past two seasons, setting the table offensively with her bat and base-stealing abilities. With 84 stolen bases, she needs just 22 to break the school career mark. A 1998 third-team All-America selection, Leutzinger has a .308 career batting average while starting 194 games at shortstop. Last year she led the team in runs (55) and was second in at-bats (213) and hits (65).
"Jeanine has been the other half of our outstanding battery for four years," Wilson continued. "She does an incredible job behind the plate with great leadership and throwing out a superb percentage of base runners attempting to steal. Rosie has a nice combination with the bat—she can slap, she can bunt, she can hit for power, and she has speed. In the field, she can throw from any position, and she reads the ball as well as anyone in the game."
Helgeland and Downs, the two Washington natives in the senior class, worked their way into the starting lineup in 1998 and 1999, respectively, and have taken turns sparking the team from the plate. Helgeland emerged her sophomore year as UW’s secret weapon offensively, tying for the team high with a .345 batting average while playing primarily in right field. Last season, the Arlington native directed the outfield from center. Downs came through with the bat in 1999, finishing third on the squad with a .313 average in her first full season of batting. Her average the first two months and last two weeks of the season did not dip below .400. Hailing from Bothell, she is the epitome of a utility player, spending time defensively at all three bases last year but playing mostly at first. Both shared the team’s most improved award as juniors.
"Erin is a very gifted athlete. She’s incredibly fast, she can bunt, she can hit the gap, and she can hit for power. And she has become a phenomenal center fielder. She can run down balls that most people would only dream of catching. Melissa is another in the long line of players who started out as a walk-on and, with growth and development, has proven just how well she can perform. She also keeps the fun in the game in a very intense, focused environment, and that is a very important ingredient in our program."
That nucleus would be enough to make a serious mark on collegiate softball, but members of the supporting cast have enough talent to fill numerous headlines themselves. Collectively, the three juniors have started all but five games since they’ve arrived on the scene. Kim DePaul, Kelly Hauxhurst and Christie Rosenblad have anchored third base, left field and second base, respectively, for the past two seasons and have reaped rewards along the way.
DePaul has started every time Washington has taken the field since the 1998 season and could provide ample footage for a highlight reel both defensively and offensively. She earned honorable mention all-Pac-10 honors last season to add to her second-team accolades her freshman year while playing third base. DePaul earned a spot on the 1999 College World Series all-tournament team, collecting four hits and helping hold UW opponents scoreless in two outings. She did her part to keep UW’s two-out rally alive in the bottom of the seventh inning of the championship game by gutting out a single, diving head-first into the bag.
"Kim is one of the most gifted athletes in the country," Wilson said. "She’s also extremely intense and a fun player to watch. She’s an aggressive base runner who loves to dive, loves to slide, loves to put on a show. She’s strong and fast, she has an incredible arm and incredible power with the bat, but she can also bunt."
Bunting is how Hauxhurst made her way into the Husky record books. The left fielder established a new standard with 15 sacrifice hits last season batting in the No. 2 hole. But just as defenses inch their way forward, she pounds out a hit, finishing third on the team in hits (62), fourth in runs (40) and fifth in RBI (25). Hauxhurst has become clutch in the postseason, earning regional all-tournament honors twice and all-CWS honors her freshman year. Last year she hit the game-winner against Arizona in the CWS, a two-run, opposite-field double over the outfielder’s head.
"Kelly advances runners when you need her to, but she also can put the ball into play and produce runs," Wilson noted. "She’s a clutch player who does what you need her to. She has a good head on her shoulders and is focused on what she needs to do."
Rosenblad rounds out the infield with a reliable glove and quick feet, turning 16 doubles plays in the past two seasons. She posted a .982 fielding percentage in Pac-10 games, committing just two errors in that span, and she came up with timely hits in the Series to score one run and knock in two more.
"Christie is probably as smooth with the glove as any second baseman in the country," Wilson observed. "At the plate, the better the pitching, the more Christie excels. She’s also the model of unselfishness. Whether you need a bunt or a hit-and-run, she’ll do it to help the team win."
Five sophomores saw limited but important action as rookies. Blue-chip hitter Jenny Topping knocked three home runs in her first five collegiate games but tore her right ACL in the eighth outing and missed the remainder of the season. Topping earned the respect of her teammates as a redshirt, though, and will serve as a co-captain while she fills time at catcher, first base and as the designated hitter. Becky Simpson was UW’s top pinch runner a year ago, appearing in 46 games and scoring 14 runs, while Jessica Bork provided the other of the one-two punch in the pinch-running ranks. Bork scored six times in 31 appearances and stole three bases. Both also saw time in the outfield.
The pitching tandem of Shannon Walsh and Bridget Wilcox began preparations for taking over duties next year from their All-American counterparts. Wilcox made 15 appearances, starting two games and earning one win in 26.1 innings of work. She struck out 17 and maintained a 1.06 ERA. An ankle sprain delayed Walsh’s development from the circle, but she came through with clutch hits at the plate. Walsh sent three balls over the fence, one of which won the regional final and another of which came in extra innings against Southwestern Louisiana in the Kia Klassic. She led the team in postseason batting average with a .455.
Jaime Clark heads a freshman class that features three Pacific Northwesterns. Hailing from Tustin, Calif., herself, Clark earned first-team all-CIF Southern Section Division I honors as a shortstop her senior year at Foothill H.S. She also starred for the Orange County Batbusters club team, which won nationals her sophomore season, finished runners-up the next summer and was fourth a year ago.
"Jaime will have a huge impact on this program," Wilson predicted. "People just sit back in awe when they watch her, but she honestly doesn’t know what they are in awe about. She is a good motivator and has a great work ethic, and she is someone her teammates want to follow."
Amy Hanson, Lauren McJunkin and Traci Tawney round out the squad. Hanson, from Mount Vernon, and Tawney, of Fall City, are local products who led their high school teams to league championships from the infield and outfield, respectively. McJunkin was a three-sport athlete at West Linn H.S. in Oregon, earning all-league honors in softball.
"This is probably the most talented team to ever don a Washington softball uniform," Wilson admitted. "Its strength is depth, experience and desire. They know they have unfinished business. But we don’t talk about winning a national championship, just putting ourselves in a position to compete for one, and that’s what they are looking forward to doing."
It could be that no one needs a taste of competition more than the architect of it all, who is anxious to see this team back on the field. How many more playoff games does Wilson feel like coaching before celebrating a championship? Eight is enough.