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Second-chance Suguro

At this time last year, sophomore Kelli Suguro was playing IMA softball. Now, she's a member of the UW squad. Photo by Sang Cho

On Feb. 19, with the sun beating down on her spotless purple uniform, Kelli Suguro tiptoed to the plate with her heart in her throat.

It was the second inning of the final game for the Washington softball team. The Huskies already led UC Davis 3-0, and UW star Kaitlin Inglesby was a little banged up. So, head coach Heather Tarr figured, why not let the walk-on hit in her place?

Despite her churning nerves, Suguro, as she is apt to do, worked the count. She battled. And then, to the surprise of just about everyone on the field, she slapped a screamer down the left-field line. Before the dust had settled, Suguro was standing on third base, soaking in the cheers that accompanied a triple in her first collegiate at-bat.

It’s a nice but unspectacular story. Until, that is, you learn that at this time last year, Suguro wasn’t driving in runs for the Huskies. She was doing it for her intramural slow-pitch softball team.

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Suguro may not have been an all-everything standout during her high-school career at Kentridge High School in Kent, Wash., but she was all-a-lot-of-things. Back then, she was a pitcher, and was named the South Puget Sound League’s Pitcher of the Year as a senior. She was also named to the 2010 All-State team and the Seattle Times All-Area team, setting a school record for career hits in the process.

That success led a host of college recruiters to Suguro’s doorstep. She had scholarship offers from a number of Division I schools, including Louisville, Columbia, and Dartmouth, but she didn’t garner much attention from the only school she really wanted to attend.

“I applied to a few schools, but not really that many,” Suguro said recently. “Once I got accepted to the UW and I got admitted to the business school, I said, ‘For sure, I’m going to the UW, regardless of if I’m on the team or not.’”

Suguro didn’t receive a scholarship offer from the UW. She did, though, get an invitation to the Huskies’ annual walk-on tryouts on the first day of school.

Those walk-on tryouts are certainly the path less traveled for UW softball players — in Tarr’s eight years running the Husky program, only one player had made the cut. That September day in 2010, the odds of the UW adding another player were as slim as ever. The Huskies were stacked, coming off three consecutive trips to the Women’s College World Series. Still, Suguro held out hope. Then the big day arrived.

“It was like 40 minutes,” Suguro said, “and then I got cut. And then intramurals became my life.”

What does an athlete do when the sport they love is taken away? For Suguro, the answer was simple: play as many other sports as humanly possible. In the fall, it was volleyball, flag football, and basketball. In the winter, it was more basketball, more volleyball.

“I played three sports in high school, so I was always doing something,” she said. “I feel like if I don’t play sports, I don’t know what else to do with my life. I had to do something, so the IMA became my best friend.”

Then came spring, the most painful season of all for a girl who found herself missing softball more than she ever would have imagined. So she joined her sister’s slow-pitch team and led them to the IMA championship.

“It’s funny,” she said with a smile, “because guys all think you suck. They usually put a girl in right field, because nobody really hits it there. But I’m left-handed, so I just hit it over their heads.”

And so it might have continued for the rest of her college career — dominating intramural sports and focusing on pursuing her business degree — were it not for a fateful text Suguro received while studying in the Foster Business Library — a text that changed her life.

While Suguro was tearing up the IMA fields, the Huskies were struggling through a nearly unprecedented spate of injuries. Concussions and stress fractures became as common a conversation topic at Husky Softball Stadium as sacrifice bunts and stolen bases. It got so bad that, in one game, the UW could suit up only 11 healthy players. It got to the point that Tarr and her staff needed some more bodies.

“We needed somebody to help us practice,” the eighth-year coach said. “So we asked Kelli: ‘Hey, we have a need here. Do you want to come back and help us out?’ We told her it would just be as a practice player, [that] she wouldn’t travel. And she was like, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ I think she missed it enough to be willing to do what’s definitely a thankless job.”

When she got the text and the ensuing invitation to join the team, Suguro hesitated only long enough to realize the enormity of the opportunity that had materialized out of the blue.

“I knew it was a huge time commitment, even if you’re not on the team,” she said. “You’re taking all this time for something that might not actually pay off. So I was kind of like, “Do I want to join the team?’ I knew it was a commitment, but I missed it. I came to school to try to play softball, so I figured, how could I turn it down?”

She spent the rest of the year practicing with the Huskies, sitting in the dugout with them for home games but never playing. But she did enough to plant the seed in Tarr’s mind that maybe, just maybe, she could help the UW team in the future.

And so the UW finally offered Suguro the opportunity she had always wanted: a chance to be a full-fledged Husky. Tarr offered her a spot on the team, and Suguro accepted.

“I knew that I’d have to compete for a spot, because everybody’s so good at this level,” she said. “I was prepared to not play at all. In the summer, I’d been told that my chances of playing were slim. And I was like, ‘You know, I have to work hard for that little chance that something will happen.’”

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That takes us back to Feb. 19, when something most certainly did happen. Against all odds, Suguro has emerged as a key cog in a UW team currently ranked fourth in the country. Just a year after thinking she was done with the sport for good, she’s contributing to one of the best softball teams in the nation.

“She’s a big offensive piece for us, whether it’s as a hitter or a base runner,” Tarr said. “And the more she does with her opportunities, the more she’s going to get opportunities.”

After a game in their most recent tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., a man and his daughter, Husky fans both, approached Suguro. The man, who Suguro had never seen in her life, had heard about her story and wanted to congratulate her.

“It’s just cool to see how people are like, ‘Oh, that’s such a cool story,’” Suguro said. “Because that doesn’t really happen to anybody in real life. Maybe in movies.”

Speaking of movies, Tarr — and she’s not making any promises, here — pointed out some similarities between Suguro and a certain athlete of Hollywood lore.

“She could be like Rudy,” Tarr said. “She could be.”

Reach reporter Kevin Dowd at sports@dailyuw.com or on Twitter @kevindowd.

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