Washington's Casey Stangel set to give 'every ounce' in her final NCAA softball tournament
"Be better than we've ever been." -- Washington coach Heather Tarr
It's a phrase that defines our program, our culture and our mission at Washington. It is a daily desire and hunger that, as Husky softball players, we all possess. As I look ahead to my final NCAA tournament, I only have one goal in mind, and that is to be better than I have ever been -- physically, mentally and emotionally.
We've had a stated goal since our report day on Sept. 28: win the 2017 national championship. The only way we can do that is to be better than we've ever been -- better even than in 2009, when Washington won its lone national title.
I believe that life works the opposite way that school works. Life gives you the test before you have the opportunity to learn the lesson. As a senior, I have already taken the test three times, and I've taken away many lessons that come with losing big games.
Outcome: Lost in regionals at home to Nebraska
Takeaway: I had my first regional under my belt, so I understood the process. I found that I was underprepared to be successful, mainly in my general understanding of how hard it was going to be, but I lived it. I tasted that postseason flavor, and I knew I had a lot of physical and mental work that needed to be done to move forward. Mentally, I had some serious strides I needed to make in my pitching. I needed to feel confident in the way I was throwing, and that was lacking dramatically. My hitting was not even a part of my equation; I was not even in the lineup or taking BP. I knew hitting was the strongest part of my game, and I needed to make some big improvements over the offseason because I knew exactly what I was capable of at the plate.
Outcome: Lost in regionals to Alabama
Takeaway: My new team had gotten back to the exact game I had lost in the previous year. This time, we didn't have the advantage of playing at home. We learned how tough it is to play in front of 4,000 fans who are rooting for you to fail. It was adversity at its best (or worst). As an individual, my physical game as a pitcher needed to improve, drastically. When I was throwing the ball out there, I wasn't throwing with conviction. My hitting was something that needed to continue to grow as well, though I had made huge strides from freshman year. Throughout the season I had worked on my strike zone awareness. Coach Tarr talked to me a lot about "not getting myself out" and instead swinging at pitches I knew I could drive, not just balls I could make contact with. I had added a lot more at-bats to my resume, but I needed continued production; Washington needed it from me.
Outcome: Lost in super regionals to Alabama
Takeaway: We had done enough to host a regional at home and conquered that task. We knew exactly what it was like to play in the Alabama environment, and we were ready to take on that challenge again. This time it wasn't about the physical stuff; I would put our roster up with anyone's and argue that we had the best group. But we were not on the same page as teammates. We didn't play for each other; we were not one team, one heartbeat. We felt the sting of losing, not because we weren't talented enough, but because we were not 100 percent united as teammates. While I had grown as a pitcher and a hitter, now adding some outfield into the mix, I was a jack of all trades, master of none. It was time to decide what kind of player I was going to be and work to be the best at it. Hitting continued to be the strongest part of my game, and that was what I was going to master for my team the following year. Even though I loved pitching, it was not something that was a game changer for my team. But there was something more that I could do: inject leadership. I knew I was a natural leader, but after reflecting on my junior season, I knew I needed to do more. I had been someone who led by example; vocally, I wasn't getting it done. I wasn't holding others accountable, and I wasn't vocally giving my teammates the confidence I knew they all deserved. I had to deal with the fact that at the end of super regionals, I hadn't done every single thing I could to be the best player and leader I was capable of being. I vowed that would change.
So here I am, with the end in sight, surrounded by 19 other players who are intentional in everything they do. Work ethic, talent, desire, passion -- those are traits that every successful team has. We now know that those qualities are not enough. We know those are merely the prerequisites to the postseason.
What I believe is going to take us to the top this year is our daily desire to be great teammates, our commitment to executing successfully under pressure, feeding each other confidence and making sure the pleasure that comes with being a Husky softball player is greater than any other emotion out there.
To be better than we've ever been, it's going to take better preparation, better leadership and better execution.
Preparation: Last year, we felt we had the strongest schedule out there and that we had done enough to be a top-eight seed. On Selection Sunday, we were surprised when we found out that we weren't seeded that high. That led us to this year's motto: Leave no doubt. Going into the postseason, we wanted to leave no doubt in anyone's mind that Washington deserves to be a top-eight seed, in order to have an opportunity to stay at home for two extra weeks. Weekly, we study our opponents, our coaches mimic the type of pitching we will be facing, we study their hitters, and we practice under pressure. We will continue to prepare better than we ever have for every game until the end of the season.
Leadership: We meet as a team weekly to make sure that every voice we have in our group of 20 leaders is heard. We talk about ways we can be better than last week as players and as teammates. We make a quantifiable goal for the week that we are dedicated to achieving, and it allows us to be hungry for success that goes beyond the scoreboard. Our goal might be being selfless teammates, or it might be having a stronger approach to our schoolwork on the road. Whatever it is, the most important thing to us is that we are one team, one heartbeat every day. Twenty players, four coaches and numerous staff members all helping each other and working toward our ultimate goal.
Execution: It doesn't matter to anyone in our group who it is, just that we do it. That is the greatest part about this group; it can be anyone at any time, and it changes weekly. We practice the way we want to play: with intent, with a mission, with pressure and with passion. The postseason is filled with the best teams, and each week it gets harder. It's going to be about executing a clutch hit, a first-and-third defensive play or a strike three in a competitive at-bat. During practice, Coach Tarr will yell, "Game winner! Who wants it!?" And it's on. We execute that play as if it's the national championship on the line. Sometimes it goes perfectly, sometimes it doesn't, but we are allowing ourselves to be in that environment and learning to execute.
The postseason is unknown. We can't control where or who we play. We can't control the calls, the weather or the times of the day we play. We can control how we prepare, how we lead our group into the fire and how we execute when we get there. We have put so much time and effort into laying the bricks for our 2017 foundation, and now we pack up and go to battle. As a senior, I know that this is my last fight that I get to take on in the postseason. I have never felt more prepared or more certain about the way that this is going to go.
As I see the end of my softball career in the distance, I know that I have and will continue to give this program every ounce of what I have. I'm not sure when the last time I put on a Husky uniform will be, but I know that I have the greatest group of 19 fighters out there with me, and I know that this postseason will be better than it's ever been.
Casey Stangel is a senior outfielder at the University of Washington. After the Women's College World Series, she will be working as a summer intern in the Major League Baseball Office of the Commissioner before pursuing her master's degree in leadership and organizational performance at Vanderbilt. She will also be working with the Commodores' baseball team.