OKLAHOMA CITY -- Every time she sprints to her post in center field, Alyson McWherter wears a reminder that responsibility is not measured on a sliding scale. No matter your role, it's an absolute.
The University of Washington junior takes the field every game with an American flag patch affixed to one sock. And while there are few more meaningful places for a college softball player to be than on the field at Hall of Fame Stadium in early June, the patch has seen more consequential settings. It's the patch her father, Lt. Col. Len McWherter, wore on his uniform during a tour of duty in Iraq, while Alyson was in high school.
"It's sort of something to hit home, remember what you're doing, where you're playing, what you're playing, stuff like that," McWherter said.
McWherter isn't the biggest name on the Washington team. In fact, despite the fact she's started all five of the team's games at the Women's College World Series, it's not a name likely to be called over the public-address system after pregame introductions. Because teammate Danielle Lawrie is the cleanup hitter for the Huskies, in addition to her pitching duties, they have some flexibility in using their designated player. Throughout the World Series, and most of her 24 starts this season, that has meant McWherter played only defense. The junior from Lakewood, Wash., has come to the plate just 11 times all year.
But her value on what could be the final day of the season Tuesday remains as significant as it was on the opening day in early February, when she set the tone for the months ahead with a pair of game-saving catches at a tournament in St. George, Utah.
On that day, in the team's second game of its first day, McWherter saved seven runs in the span of two innings to preserve a win against BYU. An inning after reaching over the fence and bringing a potential three-run home run back from the abyss, she tumbled over the same temporary fence, ball firmly ensnared in her glove, to deny the Cougars a grand slam.
By comparison, the running grab she made a few steps in front of the fence against Georgia over the weekend was routine patrol duty for the defensive stopper.
"Center field is my baby; that's what I do," McWherter said. "I've sort of come into this defensive role. I like to think of myself as the defensive specialist on the team that's the leader responsible for carrying that momentum from the dugout to the outfield and vice versa. I mean, as a hitter you don't really have the opportunity to stay up with every member of your team in the dugout, because you're focused on your at-bats."
In McWherter's case, rallying the troops is more than a convenient metaphor.
In addition to her father, both of McWherter's grandfathers served in the Army. So when she marched into the ROTC offices on campus after her freshman year and said if there was a way the scheduling would work with her softball commitments, she'd like to join the Army, she knew exactly what she was signing up for.
"It's been in the family for a long time, so it definitely didn't scare me, that's for sure," McWherter said. "I grew up with that type of a lifestyle. It's a very active lifestyle, which I knew I wanted to do something that would keep me busy, keep me physically going, because I love doing that. I couldn't imagine not playing a sport at the Division I level. I would have too much time on my hands, and I would probably get into trouble."
Instead she juggles not just coursework -- where she has earned all-conference academic recognition -- and softball, but ROTC training. Thursdays, as she recounts with the slightly pained smile of someone hearing the ghost of an alarm clock in her head, are her long days. She gets up around four in the morning, is in formation before six for training until eight, then heads to class, practice and back home to knock out some homework before lights out.
When she's out of season, weekends are often taken up by more than tailgating at Husky Stadium.
"We'll go out and we'll train down at Ft. Lewis," McWherter said of the base south of Seattle. "We'll do land navigation, stuff like that -- just drop you off in the woods with a compass and find your way around. It's definitely interesting trying to balance the two, but it's been fun."
Once the season does come to a close in Oklahoma City, whatever the result, McWherter will finish her exams at Washington and prepare for her final summer as a college student. Just a couple of months of typical stuff for a college kid in the summer: hanging by the pool, getting in a few hacks at the batting cage, field-stripping an M-16. The usual.
"This summer is a very big summer for me," McWherter said. "We have what's called the L-DAC, which is a leadership, development and assessment course for the Army. It's about a month-long training operation that they put together at Fort Lewis, where every cadet in the nation, every junior cadet, will attend and you'll begin to get graded on your leadership ability, how you interact with others, how well you work on a team. Things from swimming to physical fitness to taking apart an M-16 and putting it back together."
The class will be graded across the spectrum of tasks, and it's not exactly a pass-fail situation. ROTC cadets submit lists of preferences for branches within the Army and desired posts, or duty stations. Get top marks and you have the inside track on the assignment you want once commissioned. Slightly chagrined, McWherter admitted the team's three-week road odyssey has left her little time to prepare for the course, which begins July 3.
But if you watch McWherter in action, firing up teammates during introductions and between innings, or chasing down balls in the gap and directing traffic alongside outfielders Kimi Pohlman and Lauren Greer, you get the sense that leadership isn't something she needs much work on.
"If you put a mike on me between games, I probably talk more than the announcers do up in the stands," McWherter said with a bit of a rasp after the win against Florida. "That's probably why my voice sounds like this, but that's my job and it's important. An outfield will save you some runs, and that's how we look at it."
It's not the most important service McWherter will render in her life, but it has helped put the Huskies within a game of a national championship.
Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.