Talking softball

Head coach Tobin Echo-Hawk has just completed her second season as the head of the Portland State softball program, and in her brief tenure she has captured the 2010 division title, the 2009 PCSC Championship, two coach-of-the-year awards and has led a handful of players that have won various individual accolades.

Head coach Tobin Echo-Hawk has just completed her second season as the head of the Portland State softball program, and in her brief tenure she has captured the 2010 division title, the 2009 PCSC Championship, two coach-of-the-year awards and has led a handful of players that have won various individual accolades.

On her watch, the softball team has gone 59-53, including a dominant 33-7 record in conference. The Vanguard talked with Echo-Hawk about her past playing experience, the recruitment process and what to expect from her team next year. 

Daily Vanguard: Internationally, you played in the Italian league and won the league MVP award in 2002. What was that experience like? 
Tobin Echo-Hawk:
It was great. Regardless of whether I did well or not, the whole experience was just wonderful. The team I played for was a family-type atmosphere, they had been doing it for years and years and they had people that grew up playing in that same situation. So for me, being the MVP had no bearing on whether I was having a good time and enjoying it—it was more the atmosphere that I was in and the teammates that I had. 

DV: In the recruiting process, who reaches out to whom first? Is it the player expressing interesting in playing at a school, or will the team pursue players that they have targeted as good fits for the program?
I think that it’s a little bit of both. They write to us, which lets us know that they’re interested, and we go out and watch a lot of games. We tend to stick with Northwest kids just because it’s close to home, they know about us, they want to be here in Portland and then all the other pieces kind of fit. It’s not always about athletic ability; it’s about who is best for the role we need to fill. 

DV: As you’ve gone through the recruitment process, what type of players do you look for and what skills do you look for in a player when you’re envisioning them on your team? 
From the beginning, you can tell if someone can play softball or not. It’s the little things that nobody sees. It’s how they respond to failure, how they respond to their teammates. Are they coachable and do they make adjustments throughout the game? Those are the most important things, because you can tell if someone has athletic ability pretty quickly, but it’s the little things that sometimes have a bigger impact. 

DV: With the type of players you look to recruit, can you tell a team built by you from another coaches’ team construction? 
I think some coaches recruit size, some coaches recruit speed; it’s all a matter of preference. With other factors though, I’m not sure you can tell a difference between the teams that I recruit or not. I do try to recruit kids that enjoy what they’re doing and want to be a part of this program for four years and are going to be excited about it. 

DV: The strength of this year’s team was undoubtedly its pitching and defense. Last year, the offense was more prominent, but pitching had an equally large role. Is defense and pitching an essential part of a team for you, or is the current situation more of a coincidence of who is on the team right now?  
They all say defense wins games, but I think it’s kind of a coincidence. What we’re getting with [freshman pitcher] Anna Bertrand and the great addition she’s been to our pitching staff, now we see the team that we have and we see the holes we have. It’s just a matter of filling those holes, regardless of whether we try and do it and improve with the kids that we have, or bring other kids in that have different strengths. I think next year our biggest focus is going to be the offensive part of the game, not necessarily the defense. 

DV: Looking at next year, the outgoing seniors left a few holes at catcher, second base and first base. Are those positions going to be filled by incoming freshman, or are players like Alexa Morales and Maddie Taylor going to get a shot to make bigger contributions? 
Everybody is going to get a shot. I tell the kids this—it doesn’t really matter who you were or what you did the season before, it only matters what you’re doing in that moment and if you come in and earn your spot, then you earn your spot. If you come in and you’ve been a starter for three years and an all-conference player and then you don’t work as hard, you’re going to lose your spot. It all depends on who shows up and does what they need to do.   

DV: Looking at the stats, it’d be easy to say that Kendra Suhr had a bad year. Looking at the latter part of her season however, you can see that two of her starts were against good teams in Oregon State and Oregon. In those starts she was dominant and she really highlighted her ability to generate ground balls. What role do you envision her in next year, given that it seems that most of her struggles happened when she came in relief? 
I think with Kendra it’s being a little bit more consistent with her emotions. She definitely has the skills and the athletic ability to be successful regardless of who we’re facing, so it’s just finding her way.

She didn’t get a lot of opportunities [in 2010] so it’s hard for a player to come in and do so well when they’re not used to playing on a consistent basis. The improvements that Kendra made throughout the year are tremendous and I think that she’s settling into herself and is going to be successful next year. 

DV: As a recruiter and head coach, what does it feel like to have a team that you’re so personally involved with go on to perform so well in the field, taking last year’s PCSC championship and going 33-7 in conference on your watch?  
It’s fun. It’s really exciting to see the kids see success and I see them when it’s the hard part. When they’re working as hard as they can, whether it is conditioning or weights or during practice, it’s kind of nice to see them see the success and payoff from all their hard work. I’m just really excited and proud that they are able to be so successful.

You can say that it’s all about coaching, but if you don’t have the right kids that buy into what you have to sell, it doesn’t matter, you’re not going to be successful. I think the relationship I have with my players is really important and I work hard to maintain that relationship, so that they can see the big picture and buy into my ultimate goal, which is to have them succeed. 

DV: What’s your expectation for the team next year and do you think we can expect to see more of the same brand of softball?
I don’t think my expectations for any team will ever change. I think you just fill the gaps, you move on and you just try to get the team back to where we were. The thing that I told the kids at the end, after things were done, was remember what that feeling is like and how bad it hurts to lose that important game and let that be the motivating factor for next season and take it a little bit farther and go to the regional tournament. 

Interview edited for brevity and clarity.