Q&A with Washington Head Coach Heather Tarr
Who says you can’t go home again? Washington Husky Head Coach not only went back to her home state of Washington, she won a softball National Championship back at her collegiate alma mater where she graduated in 1998 and became the head coach only six years later.
A multi-sport athlete from Redmond, Wash., Tarr was a baseball standout long before she played softball— her Kirkland Little League team won the Big League Softball World Series and Tarr was the leading hitter with a .500 average. It was during those baseball days that she would meet and play with her future husband and current Husky assistant, J.T. D’Amico, whose father was one of the young athlete’s coaches.
Ironically, she played baseball until she was 15 and didn’t even start playing fastpitch softball until her senior year at Redmond High School where she also shined in basketball, volleyball, soccer and even snow skiing.
Tarr walked onto the Univ. of Washington softball team in 1994 in the program’s second year and would eventually earn the starting job at third and help the Huskies reach the Women’s College World Series twice.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Tarr attended the Univ. of Pacific where she would get a Master’s in Education degree and also serve as an assistant coach. In 2004, she became only the second softball head coach the Pac-12 school has ever had and five years later would lead the Huskies to the 2009 National Championship as Washington swept the Florida Gators behind Player of the Year Danielle Lawrie.
We spoke with Coach Tarr last Friday to ask her about the past, the future and what she thinks about the state of softball right now…
StudentSportsSoftball.com: Being from Washington and having played and graduated from the Univ. of Washington, how great has it been to be back at your alma mater?
Heather Tarr: I honestly tell this to people all the time, I really feel like I won the lottery. Having grown up and played in the state, then being a recruited walk-on in the program’s second year, 1993-94, gave me an amazing opportunity to play a part in the softball history here. Then, to be able to come back and make sure that the early history we created is remembered and never taken for granted and to keep the program thriving and made better for our new players is a great challenge.
I always wanted to coach, even when I was in high school I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Still, I always thought Coach (Teresa) Wilson would be here for a long time and I never aspired to be a coach at Washington, but when I was 29 and the coaching change happened the alumni and I looked at each other and I said, “I’m going for the job,” even though I wasn’t even thought of in the search committee’s pursuit early on.
I was a full-time assistant coach at Pacific at that point getting my Master’s and I found a way to be part of the interview process. I created a business plan that included us winning a national championship and I found a way to get hired on July 6, 2004. Right after that, I drove up to the Canada’s Cup and went after Danielle Lawrie because I knew she would be ideal to pitch for us and help us go far.
I’ve always worked hard and my parents always brought us up to compete and always felt I could do anything. I’m just happy the school believed that a 29-year-old former player could take over and get the job done.
SSS.com: You’ve been a head coach at Washington for nine seasons and gone to the World Series five of those years with a national title in 2009. Was it harder to get to this elite status or has it been harder to stay on top?
HT: I think both are equally challenging, but I do think it’s more difficult to stay at the top. You can always fight, scrap and kick as an underdog when you’re not expected to do anything—it’s easier to compete when no one’s expecting you to do anything—but when you’ve done it, the expectations rise.
If you don’t keep working on being better than you were yesterday, it definitely is harder to compete for a national championship but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I want it to be where players want to come here to strive to win a championship and when you have that listed as a goal on the wall and don’t meet that standard then you and your players feel the need to work harder to get yourself in a position to take your game to the next level.
SSS.com: In the last decade as a coach, how have you seen the sport change at the high school and club level?
HT: I think the players at the club level have gotten better and better. Maybe 20 years ago athletes didn’t play with the absolute expectation that there’d be a scholarship at the end of the rainbow, but now players go to be on a club team with the expectation that they can work hard to get a scholarship.
That’s great, obviously, but it also has a down side. For many younger players, the end goal is the scholarship rather than playing something to be the best at it and to be well-rounded as an athlete, student and person.
When I played, my Dad said it’d be cool if I could get nine varsity letters playing three sports. For me that was a goal and it made me a better all-around athlete with great experiences and friendships. However, today the motivator is the scholarship rather than being well-rounded and I think that hurts kids in the moment as they’re not competing for their team or high school.
It creates the self-serving problem where the individual is playing only for herself or her family or the scholarship and not for the unity of the team and the colors of the high school.
That creates a problem if it goes on up into college, because if you’re not playing for that coach or team what are you playing for? Somewhere and sometime along the way you have to learn to play for the coach or organization, not yourself, if you want to have the best experience possible.
SSS.com: So you’re a fan of athletes playing multiple sports when they’re young?
HT: Yes, I’m a big fan of experiencing other sports and working on different skills. Athletes today have become so focused on playing one sport all year round where before, for example, you could have fun being on a recreational soccer team with your friends. Even high school has become more serious in that you have to weigh playing one sport over another.
In many sports like volleyball, basketball and softball, even a little bit, it’s all about the club and it’s like a business. It’s disappointing that athletes aren’t learning basic skills in other sports that would help them be even better in softball. I skied for example and learning to balance on the skis and how to lean helped me be more athletic in the other sports I played.
Plus it’s not good for the sport if young girls play so much they get burned out and quit playing. It’s the recreational side that is going away and it’s sad because we need the numbers at the younger level to keep the sport growing, but it’s dying out.
SSS.com: You’ve put Washington on the map as a program that top players must consider. What are some of the things that attract recruits to the Husky program?
HT: I strongly believe that if we can get you to come up here and see what this area has to offer, then you’re going to learn that you’ll be around a well-educated community and a place where there’s a lot of opportunities.
Here, you’ll play for a proven coaching staff, but the coolest thing here is you get to be seen and recognized like a pro within the Seattle community because people love our program and recognize our success in this huge city and region.
We own the state and incoming players can play for the little kids who look up to them as heroes and love them like they’re celebrities. We have that impact and for players who play in the Washington program you are something and you matter, not just when you’re here, when you’re done too. Recruits see and feel this and want to be a part of it.
SSS.com: When you get in front of a group of teen players, what’s the No. 1 message you want to impart to them?
HT: My whole thing is you can do anything you want, you just have to do the best with what you have. If you have a passion and do something and be resourceful, you can do whatever you want. It’s a pretty simple way to go.
I also feel my role as a woman coach is important, I want my players and young high school aged girls, too, to see that you can have success in your family, in your career and in whatever areas you want to be part of. Someday I want to have kids and use that to show young girls that you can be a successful mother and make that one more thing you can excel at. Whatever it is you strive for, you can make it happen.
SSS.com: Your husband is on your staff… how complicated (or not) is that having the head coach/assistant and wife/husband dynamic?
HT: J.T. has always been so supportive and his ego is 100 percent in check. He’s confident enough that he doesn’t have to be a paid coach, he’s a voluntary assistant and that’s all fine. He accepts the role he’s in and the assistant coaches have a lot of say and input as well.
I think it’s just an advantage because when we go home we can talk about softball or not. We can leave all that at the office or we can come home and talk about something we suddenly might get inspired to talk about further, a spark of an idea that we might talk about into the night. The toughest part is we have to fill in the other assistants with what we talked about from 9 at night until 10 in the morning!
The personal life isn’t too tough because we’re on the same page. We don’t have kids, which we do want to happen sooner or later—hopefully sooner!—but sometimes work takes priority over family life, which it shouldn’t of course, but he helps make it work and it’s totally fine.
SSS.com: What is your philosophy on recruiting and how do you and your staff approach getting top talent in your area, in the West Coast and across the nation?
HT: Our primary philosophy is to get the best prospects in our region and I think we’ve done a good job with that. We would like to get more Washington kids, but we have the opportunity to get the best players not just in our state but also Oregon, British Columbia, Idaho, and Northern California.
And then we have a great market in Southern California and can’t turn kids away who are good fits from that talent-rich area. We do have our hands in other areas across the country and are getting some kids from the Midwest in the future. What’s been fortunate for our program is we’ve been on TV for the last eight years so we don’t just limit recruiting to the West Coast as we’re starting to get attention from other places.
We trust our recruiting networks, especially in Southern California, and trust that they will fit in our system. By recruiting network I mean we work with club coaches we trust who develop players. Our job is to put the best nine out there and if that changes we try to communicate that the best nine will play based on practice so we have to recruit kids who practice like that, who are hungry and competitive to get on the field.
We like to recruit from a program like Marty Tyson’s (Corona Angels) where they have to compete for playing time. The one thing we do, I think better than most, is research players by talking to high school coaches who see another side of them that they might not show in travel ball. High school coaches see them daily and get a good sense of what the player is like which is important for us as we want to have players who fit not just on the field but off of it.
SSS.com: The Huskies tied for third at this year’s Women’s College World Series losing to eventual champion Oklahoma… were you happy to place that high or upset you didn’t win it all?
HT: For me as a coach, any time from now on if we don’t win it all it will be a disappointment because we have won it before. This group of players came in with that expectation—to battle for the national championship—and felt it was obtainable, but for the last three years they wondered if we could even get back to the World Series. So, trying to meet that expectation against not having done so for several years made it rewarding for us to play at home in the Regionals and then going to the Super Regionals and finish third.
It was pretty much right where I feel the potential was set and where we could go. Finishing third was very rewarding, but for me as a coach you know that nothing is as good as winning the National Championship. Still, the way we did it—how we went on the road and beat Missouri—was awesome for this group.
SSS.com: You’ve won a National Championship… prioritize what gets you that title: talent, chemistry, momentum, luck or are there other factors?
HT: I agree with all of those, but I think the one not listed is experience. When we won the title in 2009, we had four players in Danielle (Lawrie), Ashley Charters, Lauren Greer, and Jenn Salling who had not participated in 2008 and had finished in third place in 2007 so they were hungry.
That year (’07), we had the upper hand but lost against Arizona in the semifinals and that set a fire burning in them, not making it to the championship. I remember watching that young team in 2008 try to stay afloat and we did—it was probably my best job of coaching—but in 2009 a lot of things came together because of that experience.
All of those are important, but when you have experience leading the way, all the others seem to fall into place.