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Husky Softball Notebook: Best Start Ever

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Led by the dominant pitching of freshman Gabbie Plain, #1 Washington pushed its season-opening winning streak to 23 this weekend, eclipsing the 20-0 start in 2011.

Washington's Kelly Burdick (center) stands in to take a swing against BYU on Saturday night, while BYU catcher Libby Sugg crouches behind the plate. The Huskies won, 7-4.
Ed Strong

For the first time in Husky Softball history, Washington has passed the 20-0 mark to begin a season.

Their second win of the weekend, 8-2 against Northwestern on Friday night, tied the previous mark, and then a 4-1 win over #11 Alabama on Saturday evening clinched the mark. Wins over BYU and Portland State then extended it to 23 by the end of the tournament.

Final scores from the Husky Classic:

  • Washington 8, #11 Alabama 0 (5)
  • Washington 8, Northwestern 2
  • Washington 4, Alabama 1
  • Washington 7, BYU 4
  • Washington 4, Portland State 1

3 things we learned

1) At this point, the Huskies have a better than 50% chance of entering conference play undefeated.

The 2 wins against Alabama were the last two major non-conference tests for Washington. The Huskies 12-0 start (up through the Lamar doubleheader) was impressive because of how it happened - with so many run-rule victories and the 8-game shutout streak. But the thought of starting 12-0 was absolutely within reason, maybe even expected, as none of their first 12 opponents have received top 25 votes at any point this season. In their next 10 (Texas through BYU), every single opponent is either A) currently ranked, B) ranked at some point, or C) received votes at some point:

  • Texas: RV in preseason poll (week 0); has upset wins over #9 Arizona and #25 Michigan
  • Notre Dame: RV in weeks 0-2; beat #25 Michigan and swept 2 from #21 Minnesota
  • Texas A&M: ranked all season, currently #7
  • Nebraska: RV in weeks 1-3 upset #7 TAMU
  • Long Beach State: currently #22, was RV at the time
  • Alabama (x2): ranked all season, currently #11
  • Northwestern: RV in week 0; upset Alabama on Sunday
  • BYU: ranked #19 in week 0

The final 7 non-conference games — the last game of the Husky Classic that they won vs Portland State, all 5 games in Las Vegas this weekend, and a home game vs Bryant next Wednesday — are much easier. I would significantly surprised if UW doesn’t enter their Pac-12 opener at #16 Arizona State in a couple of weeks with a 29-0 mark.

2) The Huskies have shown vulnerability coming off a big win.

The 8-0 win against #11 Alabama was really impressive. The 8-2 win over Northwestern, though nothing to write home about, was fine. The 4-1 win against the Tide the 2nd time around was solid. Although the BYU score looks somewhat close, the game really wasn’t - the Huskies nearly run-ruled BYU when, already up 7-0, Kirstyn Thomas hit a deep fly ball that was caught on the warning track to end the fifth inning. BYU got a pair of runs in both the 6th and 7th innings to make the final look more competitive.

But Portland State was a different matter. The Huskies didn’t score in the first 3 innings against the Vikings (2-12), marking the 2nd-longest span to start a game scoreless this year (4 innings, at Texas). In the top of the 4th, PSU brought a runner across against Taran Alvelo to hand the Huskies a deficit of any margin for just the 3rd time this year (2-0 after 1 vs Texas A&M, 1-0 after a half vs Northwestern). The lead would last a matter of pitches, as Julia DePonte hit a leadoff homer in B4 and Alvelo was never really threatened again.

Much is made of the mental toughness category for elite teams. When you have a big game coming up, can you keep focused in the game or two against weaker teams before it? Subsequently, can you avoid getting overconfident after a big win and beat the lesser opponent coming afterwards?

The Huskies seem to have no problem with the former. Headed into a big showdown with Texas A&M on Saturday morning in Palm Springs, the Huskies faced a nearly-ranked Notre Dame team in what was a good candidate for a trap game. UW blasted the Irish and quickly won by run-rule. In their final game of Palm Springs, looking ahead to coming home undefeated and playing the home opener against a top-15 Alabama team, Washington faced a now-ranked Long Beach State team and Alvelo got within 3 outs of a no-hitter as UW won 4-0.

But the latter has seemed to be an issue, at least with a small sample size. After the thrilling win vs Texas A&M, the Huskies took a while to get going against Nebraska, leading just 1-0 for a majority of the game. Neither of the games against the Wildcats and Cougars this weekend were very close to being losses, but they were far from Washington’s best performances. And I would tend to think the UW players would agree with the mindset that the Portland State game on Sunday was probably their worst-played game of the season.

This shouldn’t be a major worry at this point. Not only is this team 23-0, the latest time they’ve trailed in a game was the 4th inning, and they’ve only had 3 games that they were tied or up by just 1 run in the 6th inning or later (at Texas, vs Texas A&M, G2 vs Alabama). But it is definitely something to keep an eye on moving forward.

3) Freshman Gabbie Plain has firmly wrestled the #2 spot from Sam Manti, and might be challenging Taran Alvelo for ace status.

For the second and third time this season, Coach Tarr chose to go with Plain rather than Alvelo against top-15 competition (A&M, now Bama twice). Against Texas A&M, Plain looked somewhat shaky but still emerged mostly okay: 4 IP, 4 H, 2 R (2 ER), 5 BB, 5 K. But Plain was dominant at home this weekend: she threw 9 scoreless innings against the Crimson Tide, giving up just 3 hits and 1 walk. Add in her clean 7th inning against Northwestern on Friday night, and she threw 10 scoreless innings. I would be shocked if Plain is not named the Pac-12 freshman of the week, and maybe the pitcher of the week as well, though that seems less sure.

I still think Alvelo is the de facto ace moving forward. But Plain has surged from this being a rotation with a clear ace and co-number 2’s (1/2A/2B) to being a situation with co-aces and a number 3 (1A/1B/3). This is not because of Alvelo struggling, nor is it a lack of development in her sophomore year for Sam Manti.

Somewhat of a side note, given the fantastic season we’re currently having: the pitching staff for next season looks downright unfair. Alvelo will be a senior, Manti a junior, and Plain a sophomore. The only graduating player is seldom-used reliever Kristin Cochran. Incoming freshman McKenzie Schultz (Monroe, WA) adds some depth, though I’m not sure how much she’ll pitch in her first year on campus. Schultz’s arm will definitely be needed in 2020 when Alvelo has graduated and Plain may redshirt to play with Team Australia at the Olympics, as softball returns to the Olympic stage (as Danielle Lawrie and a few others did in 2008. the last time softball was an Olympic sport).

New Rankings

Washington continues to hold 29 of 32 first-place votes in the latest NFCA poll. #2 Florida (19-1) holds 1, while the 3rd-ranked Bruins (19-0) claims the final 2. That's the exact same distribution as last week, for what it's worth.

Pac-12 teams in the rankings (NFCA Coaches Poll/USA Softball Media Poll):

1/1 Washington (23-0)

3/3 UCLA (19-0)

6/5 Oregon (18-4)

9/9 Arizona (15-2)

14/14 Arizona State (16-2)

17/16 Cal (18-3)

Oregon State (13-8) and Utah (9-7) are both receiving votes in the USA Softball poll, but not the NFCA poll.

The top 3 remain the same with Washington-Florida-UCLA, as all 3 had impressive undefeated weekends: Washington went 5-0 and beat #11 Alabama twice, Florida went 3-0 without issuing a run including a no-hitter vs #8 Baylor, and UCLA went 4-0 including a romp of then-#21 Minnesota. The gap, at least as far as the resumes go, between the top 3 and the rest is just getting larger.

Upcoming Schedule

The Huskies participate in their final non-conference tournament of the season this weekend, heading to Las Vegas to play in UNLV’s Rebel Classic. The Huskies will face New Mexico State twice, plus DePaul, UNLV, and Portland State for the second week in a row. If you’re in Vegas for the Pac-12 MBB tourney but also interested in seeing the top-ranked softball team, the pnly UW softball game that would conflict with any of the MBB games is the 2nd one on Friday. UNLV’s softball complex is about 3 miles East of T-Mobile Arena.

  • Fri, 1:30 PM: vs NMSU
  • Fri, 6 PM: at UNLV
  • Sat, 9 AM: vs DePaul
  • Sat, 11:15 AM: vs NMSU
  • Sun, 9 AM: vs Portland State

Update (thanks to those in the comments for the reminder): I belie that live streams of all the games will be available through the Mountain West Network; will attempt to confirm/deny.