On a team with many stars, there are multiple players that come to mind when thinking of potential national awards.
- Junior ace pitcher Taran Alvelo and senior third baseman Taylor Van Zee were both named to the 50-member preseason watch list for the National Player of the Year.
- Sophomore shortstop Sis Bates was a finalist for freshman of the year and will play with the top U.S. national team this summer on a team of mostly pros.
- Junior catcher Morganne Flores, unfortunately sidelined by a season-ending injury during practice, was in the top 5 in the country in RBI last year.
Instead, it’s senior first baseman Kirstyn Thomas. It’s the young woman who was one of the last additions to the 2014 recruiting class to add depth. The player who stopped pitching at the collegiate level after recording an ERA over 8 her freshman year. The backup who only had 28 at-bats over her first two seasons in Seattle.
Thomas was a star pitcher and shortstop at George Bush High School in Richmond, Texas, about 30 miles Southwest of Houston. She committed to play her college softball at Nicholls State in the summer just before her senior year, but wasn’t going to be signing her letter of intent until later that fall.
"My coach randomly came and talked to me and said 'Hey, Washington is interested in you. They’ve been emailing, but I didn't think you'd want to go that far. I didn't really know if that was an option for you.”
“I went down and watched her the fall of her senior year,” said Head Coach Heather Tarr. “She said she was interested in Washington, but then we also heard that she had committed to Nicholls State.”
The UW coaching staff was going to go in another direction, focused on gaining depth for the pitching staff and not wasting time recruiting a player who was already committed. But then Thomas did something unusual.
"We got a letter from her, basically pouring her heart out to us,” said Tarr. “Saying that if she could ever take advantage of this opportunity (she’d be thrilled).”
Thomas had been to California for club softball tournaments a few times before, but she had never been to the Pacific Northwest before her official visit in fall of 2013. When she visited Washington, her host was senior Whitney Jones. After graduating in spring of 2014 and working elsewhere in softball the past few years, Jones joined Tarr’s staff as an assistant coach this past fall.
In her freshman year, Thomas both pitched and did some hitting for the Huskies. Her hitting was fine but unspectacular, hitting .250 with two doubles in limited opportunities. But she struggled in the circle. She went 3-2 due to plenty of run support, but gave up 63 hits and 21 walks in just 35 1⁄3 innings, recording an ERA of 8.41.
“We needed the pitching that year,” said Tarr. “We didn’t have an ace; we were going to go by committee.” Thomas was one of six pitchers used by the Huskies in spring of 2015, and one of five who pitched at least 20 innings. By comparison, the Huskies have had just three pitchers throw over 20 innings the year before and every year since.
With freshman Taran Alvelo and sophomore transfer Madi Schreyer both arriving for the spring 2016 season, Thomas, as well as teammate Casey Stangel, both ended up switching from both pitching and hitting to being full-time hitters. “She’s a pitcher,” said Tarr. “But during her first year, we realized it was not in her best interest to pitch here.”
With the struggles in her first year on Montlake and D1 attention elsewhere, was there ever any incentive to transfer?
“No, I never really thought about it,” she said. “I really love this team, the coaches, and the culture that we have.”
In her junior year, with the first chance to be a regular starter, Thomas flourished, slashing .285/.367/.500 with 8 home runs. But the first weekend of this year took that performance to another level. At the Bradley Invitational, Thomas went 11-for-16 (.688) with 3 doubles and 5 home runs. Her absurd 1.813 slugging percentage leads the country, as do her 5 HR (tied with Oregon’s Gwen Svekis) and 16 RBI. But her drive to get better stays the same - including who she goes to for help.
Thomas has one sibling: an older brother named Dillon. Dillon is an outfielder in the Colorado Rockies organization, having made it as high as Triple-A late in 2017.
When I mentioned her brother, her eyes lit up. “I always come to him first, if I’m ever struggling,” said Thomas. “I’ll have someone take a video of me and send it to him. I’ll tell him ‘Hey, I’m feeling weird - can you just look at this and see what I’m doing? I feel like he’s my go-to (source) for my hitting.
As soon as our interview ended, Thomas rejoined her teammates in the batting cages, looking to keep her hot streak going into this weekend. On the first pitch she saw from assistant coach J.T. D’Amico, she hammered the ball right back at him, knocking the protective screen backwards.
Always looking for ways to help the team, she returns to practice. Her mindset that kept her going during her first two years with the Huskies: “I know that if I keep bettering myself, that the opportunities will come.”
The opportunity is here. Now the Huskies just need Thomas to keep doing what she’s done for over a year now — hit.