Salling gives UW big boost in tourney

AMHERST, Mass. -- Next to Jenn Salling, the Mona Lisa's smirk looks like an ear-to-ear grin.

As the University of Washington's starting shortstop, Salling wears a perpetual scowl of concentration on and around the field as if, like cleats, pants and a jersey, it's a part of the uniform. But in no small part because of Salling, Washington is all smiles as it prepares to take on Georgia Tech in a super regional beginning Saturday (ESPN, noon ET). It took the All-American a long time to find her way to Seattle, but the wait was well worth it for the Huskies.

And whatever the emotions that mark her outward countenance, that's a feeling that cuts both ways. Salling has played in the Olympics, World Championships and even an NCAA tournament before, but this year is different for the British Columbia native who has been eligible to play for the Huskies for all of a month and a half.

"I'm happier where I'm at, and I think that's what the difference is," Salling said. "My family is always here with me; I'm just closer [to home] in Seattle. And I'm with, you know, such good friends of mine. It makes a difference being in a happier place."

Salling and the third-seeded Huskies wrapped up the first leg of what they hope will be a three-week road trip to the national championship with a win in the Amherst Regional that tested their resolve as much as it could be tested. Pushed to a decisive third game by host UMass, Washington needed 15 innings and several narrow escapes to finally emerge with a 6-1 win.

It also needed Salling, who drove home the team's only run in regulation with a first-inning sacrifice fly and drove in the eventual winner in the 15th inning by beating out an infield single by half a step with two outs and the bases loaded. For the weekend, Salling was 8-for-14 with a walk and a team-high four RBIs in four games -- one more hit than she had in the regular season.

In fact, Salling entered the NCAA tournament as perhaps the highest-profile player in the nation with a batting average on the wrong side of the Mendoza Line. An All-American at Oregon as a redshirt freshman in 2007, she took the Pac-10 by storm in her debut, hitting .481 with 14 home runs and 73 RBI. She walked six times in one two-game series against Arizona, three times intentionally. She hit a pair of home runs off Washington ace Danielle Lawrie. She hit a pair of home runs and drove in three of her team's four runs in her first NCAA tournament game.

Simply put, she looked like the second coming of Lovie Jung. And coaches around the Pac-10 took notice.

"We always had usually Danielle pitching, so we found ways to beat [Salling]," Washington coach Heather Tarr said. "Of course, she hit two home runs off of us in three games -- but it wasn't ever in crucial situations. She's just a good athlete with a phenomenal arm, and she loves the game. [I] liked the way she played and loved the fact that she just plays with a lot of passion and energy."

The rest of the conference got a break from both Lawrie and Salling last season while both trained and toured with the Canadian Olympic team in preparation for the competition in Beijing, softball's final appearance in the Games. But once that experience came to a close in heartbreaking fashion, as Canada lost the bronze-medal game and a chance at its first medal in the sport, Salling informed Oregon she wouldn't return.

Talking now about the mechanics and motivation of the move from the Ducks to the Huskies, Salling repeatedly stresses that it was a process she went through and a decision she made entirely on her own. And while she and Lawrie are close, the ace's role was passive.

"Obviously, playing behind Danielle is one of the best experiences you could ever ask for, especially as a shortstop," Salling said. "But like I said, it was never her saying, 'Oh, Jen, you should come to Washington, you should come to Washington.' But I talked to her and said, 'You know, I think I'm going to come; I think I want to come.' And she said, 'Do what's best for you.' So I did, and I'm here and we're in a good place."

Salling sat out last season, but to be eligible after transferring within the Pac-10, she either had to sit out another season at Washington or complete an AA (Associate in Arts) degree at a community or junior college. She completed the degree over the fall and winter and was able to enroll at Washington, which operates on a quarters system, in time to join the softball team for its Pac-10 schedule. The nine-month break from softball came at a good time after the grind and pressure of an Olympic experience she described as "overwhelming," but so did her return to competition.

"I've never been so excited for something in my entire life," Salling said. "Because I would go to their practice once a week, and I was just like itching to play and stuff like that. So when I finally got out there, my first weekend was against Arizona-Arizona State and it was just so exciting."

Playing in front of her family in Seattle, she didn't get a hit in her Washington debut on April 3 but scored a pair of runs as Lawrie no-hit Arizona -- one of the most prolific offenses in the country.

Tarr batted Salling third right out of the gate and kept her in either the No. 3 or No. 4 spots in the lineup, even as her average struggled to climb toward .200; Tarr noted that a lot of opponents were more worried about the reputation that came with the name than the numbers on the stat sheet. And Salling was still productive, drawing nine walks, scoring nine runs and driving in seven runs in the 18 regular-season games she played.

"She was weak, she was slow, she was -- her timing was off, she was starting to think [too much]," Tarr said. "But great athletes can overcome that. She's worked hard. We had to kind of get her some extra sprint work just because her legs weren't turning around as fast -- she'd been on the treadmill and jogging and not training specifically as well as she should have been.

"But I had no problems keeping her in that spot because she can affect a lineup. She can hit the ball to the right side and score [Ashley] Charters. She plays the game the right way, whether her timing is on or not."

The timing started to return late in the regular season, including a good final weekend against Cal and Stanford, and it kept ticking along in Amherst. Salling can knock the ball off the wall on a rope or send it soaring over the fence, but some of her most impressive feats come with more nuance.

Locked in a scoreless game against Massachusetts on Saturday, she worked a 3-0 count against Brandice Balschmiter with a runner in scoring position. After Balschmiter got a strike on the far reaches of the outside corner, Salling fouled off the next offering and then, as another pitch sailed toward the outer edge, lofted a soft, looping ball the opposite way into left to score the run.

"I think she's got some of the best hands that I've seen from an athlete in a long time," Tarr said. "When her timing's on and she's seeing the ball well, she's dangerous. Those kinds of hits -- the little 'take two, go to left,' as a lefty -- she's kind of able to do that because she has such good hands."

Standing on first after the hit Saturday, Salling pumped a fist as her teammates erupted. She might have even cracked the slightest of smiles. But if not, in her own way, she was having the time of her life.

"It's probably a lot of she's tough on the outside," Tarr said. "She cares a lot about her teammates. We didn't know a lot about her before she got here -- Danielle obviously knew her -- and we've been pleasantly just surprised with how she's been as a teammate. She loves her teammates already. They love her. She's found a way to kind of get them to buy into her. Because that's not easy, having somebody come in and take somebody's spot in the middle of the year. And the team just immediately accepted her as a personality."

Just don't expect the rest of the Huskies to imitate that personality. With Salling at work in the middle of the order and the middle of the field, there's simply too much to smile about.

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.