Statesman Q&A: Texas' Kaitlyn Washington on softball, championships and being UT's grandma
Kaitlyn Washington has had some memorable moments in season openers at Texas.
Four years ago, she took just one swing in the 2017 opener against Colorado State. It was a home run. In 2019, she tripled in two runs and scored the mercy rule-triggering eighth run against Boston College in the Texas Classic. And last year, she contributed an RBI single in the season-opening blowout win over Wichita State.
On Thursday, third-ranked Arizona is in town and Washington will play in her fifth opening day game for the Longhorns. She was a senior outfielder a year ago, too, but she took advantage of the NCAA's decision to freeze the eligibility of all athletes for one year because of the pandemic.
So, Washington is getting a senior year restart. In 2020, the Longhorns were 24-3 with wins over No. 1 UCLA and No. 2 Washington when the season was called in March. Texas enters this season as the No. 6 team in the NFCA preseason poll. Texas returns the bulk of its offensive talent, but standout pitcher Miranda Elish recently opted out of this season.
Washington recently spoke to the American-Statesman about her final year and Texas' season prospects.
How ready is this team for the season to begin? It's been a while since we've seen y'all on the field.
I think we're really ready. I'm really anxious to get going. We've been scrimmaging each other now for weeks and so we're just ready to see something new, new pitchers. We're really ready. Just been getting prepared this past week and next week too. We're ready.
Did you think that the 2020 team could have won it all?
I think the 2020 team was going to win it all for sure. It was just something special about that team that I've never felt before.
Can this team pick up where that 2020 team left off?
I think so. We brought back a lot of the same returners that we had and a lot of the same lineup that we had last season and we also got some new additions in the freshmen and the newbies as well. I think we're definitely gonna pick up right where we left off.
Why did you decide to come back for your fifth year?
I decided to come back because I felt like I wanted to leave a legacy here. I don't think I was able to do that with having the season cut so short last year. Like I said before, I just had like this special thing that I never had in any other past season that I've been here. It was just something special about the team, about the coaches.
And obviously, I want to win a national championship. Given that the last season was going the way that it was, I figured I'm going to win a national championship this season.
How long did it take you to come to that decision? Was that one of those things where you knew right away or did you have to take a couple days?
It actually wasn't like I just knew I was coming back. I was at home for that spring break or whatever it was, and I think I cried for like two weeks straight. Every time I thought about softball or I'd be talking to my mom about it. It was hard for me to decide because I have future plans already. I knew what I was wanting to do after I was done here. I was, like, can I postpone those plans? Will I still be able to do everything I need to do? It took me about two weeks to probably decide if I was going to come back for sure.
Do you have hopes of playing professionally or is this going to be your last ride?
I think this might be my last ride. I love softball, I've been playing it my entire life. I think I'm ready to move on, go to grad school, get my master's degree in clinical mental (health) counseling. So I think this might be it for me.
Shannon Rhodes is also a "Super Senior," but she transferred in three years ago. Taylor Ellsworth has been nearly here as long as you have but she moved in during that semester break. So you truly are the O.G. of this program right now. Are the younger players giving you a hard time? How's that relationship?
They kind of look to me for advice a lot of the time. Just advice about softball, about anything really. I always tell them to just come to me and I will help you with anything, I've been here forever. I think we get along pretty well. I do get called 'Grandma' sometimes. Other than that, we just have a good relationship. We talk, I give advice as much as I can.
What was your reaction to Miranda's decision to opt out of this season?
I definitely felt a lot of emotions given that me and Miranda have definitely gotten closer with her being here. I didn't have any doubts in the team when she was leaving. I was going to support her through her decision and everything.
But as the team goes, I still have faith in this team. I don't think we'll be hurt too much by it. I think we have people that are going to be able to step up and (take advantage of the) opportunities. We have a lot of veterans on the team as well that have been here. I was a little shocked and hurt, but I always want to support her.
What is your confidence level in the pitchers that this team still does have?
I'm very confident in our pitching staff for sure. We've been scrimmaging over the past couple weeks and they've been looking really strong. Shea (O'Leary) brings a lot to the table, she did awesome from previous years. Ryleigh (White's) going to be a really good new face for us, she has some good stuff. So does Molly (Jacobsen) as well, we've played against her in the past and now we have her. But yeah, I think they're gonna be fine. We're gonna use them as a staff and they're going to do good this year.
What are some of the team's strengths?
Some strengths are definitely on the offensive side. We had a really good start of the season last year. I feel like we built upon that a lot just this fall and this spring so far. Definitely our offense is a strength. Our team chemistry, we're trying to build that up as well and I think it's come along pretty well so far. Still building on that, it's just hard with all this COVID, we can't really hang out outside of softball and trying to know everybody. We've definitely come a long way with the team chemistry as well.
What does new assistant coach Megan Bartlett bring to the table?
She does a lot in the outfield with us. I think she brings a spark to the game. She thinks really highly of us. She always says, "I'm going to coach the best outfield in the country," so she does give us a lot of confidence and I think she's just really, really taught us to just believe in ourselves as an outfield and always have our infield's backs.
Who is a younger player who's going to take that next step this season?
Alyssa Popelka. She has really come out of her shell. Her slapping, her hitting has been looking really good. Her outfield work has been great. She's the fastest girl on the team. She's been working really hard just this fall season and this spring season. So definitely Pop is someone to be on the lookout for.
I'm going to ask you to brag on your girl for a second. Is Janae Jefferson going to establish herself as one of the better players in the country?
I definitely think she's kind of under the radar. She does get recognized for things, but I don't think she's as recognized as she deserves. She's gonna do great things this year. The second four-time All-American (at Texas)? I think that's gonna be her. She's gonna do big things. She always brings a lot of good energy, a lot of good things to the team. She's a great leader as well. A lot of the girls look up to her too. She's going to be great for us.
What are your personal goals for the season? You are within six doubles of that school record. Are you marking that down?
That's definitely been on my mind. I definitely want to achieve that. Six doubles across the whole season, I think I can accomplish that. I don't want that to be the sole thing I want to think about. It'd be in the back of my mind for sure. That's definitely one of the things to leave my legacy here and just leave my name in the record books here at Texas.
And then, I think just doing anything I can to help this team win. I've been here the longest and so anything that I can do to help this team get to where it wants to be, that's my goal.
Mike White has referred to you in the past as "the glue of the team." Why did he say that about you?
I respect both sides of everything that comes up in the clubhouse. I try to keep things pretty chill and even-keel for the whole team. People can come to me for any kind of problems. I think that might be why I'm kind of the glue of the team.
What's been your favorite memory so far at Texas?
My home run in the postseason against (Houston), that's one of my favorite ones, just because the environment was crazy. It was really hype and I got the whole team up and that was really exciting. I think that was my first home run in postseason; I don't really hit that many home runs. Then I got to say that Alabama series in the Super Regionals. I just think that whole entire series is just my favorite memory. Especially that second game when Mary (Iakopo) and MK (Tedder) hit those home runs and we came back and won that game. It was magical.
In a couple weeks, Texas will play North Texas. How weird will it be to see Tuesday (DerMargosian, the ex-UT outfielder turned North Texas graduate transfer) in the opposing dugout?
It's gonna be so weird. She was my roommate since freshman year, that's my girl. She's always my go-to person in the dugout. If I was doing something bad on the field, I'd come in and talk to Tuesday. We just had that connection. It's going to be really weird.
I just talked to her the other day, she said, "I'll see you soon, hopefully I can hug you after the game." I'm excited for her. I think she's going to get a lot of playing time over there and she's going to really do some good things at North Texas. It's gonna be weird, but I'm really excited that she's there and gets to play her last year there.