RAINBOW WAHINE SOFTBALL
Wahine aim for WAC tourney title
It's all business for the Wahine softball team
With the regular-season title already secure, the Hawaii softball team begins its quest for the Western Athletic Conference tournament crown tomorrow in Fresno, Calif.
The 13th-ranked Rainbow Wahine (49-5, 16-2 WAC) are the top seed in the double-elimination tournament and have a first-round bye. They will face either sixth-seeded Utah State or seventh-seeded Louisiana Tech tomorrow at 8 a.m., Hawaii time.
The Wahine swept both teams in their regular-season series.
Host Fresno State is the second seed, followed by New Mexico State, defending tournament champion Nevada and San Jose State.
The tournament runs through Saturday with the winner earning the league's automatic bid to the 64-team NCAA tournament.
The last time the Hawaii softball team visited Fresno, the Rainbow Wahine left town with a motto that would carry them through the next 12 months.
It was just about a year ago that a stirring run through the Western Athletic Conference tournament ended one win short of the crown and an NCAA tournament berth.
Thus, the Wahine branded this season with a theme of "unfinished business" and return to Bulldog Diamond this week following a record-breaking regular season aiming to add the tournament title to their list of accomplishments.
"There are a lot of things riding on this tournament," UH coach Bob Coolen said. "We want to go in there and play well ... so we can prove the season wasn't a fluke, that's huge for us.
"There's no letting up right here just because we're regular-season champions."
As the WAC's regular-season champion and top seed, the 13th-ranked Wahine (45-9, 16-2 WAC) have a bye in the first round of the tournament and begin play tomorrow at 8 a.m., Hawaii time against either No. 6 Utah State or No. 7 Louisiana Tech.
The Aggies and Bulldogs meet in today's opening game of the double-elimination tournament. In other first-round games, second-seed and host Fresno State faces No. 5 San Jose State, and No. 3 New Mexico State takes on No. 4 Nevada, the defending tournament champion.
The team left for Fresno early yesterday morning with their return date and the next stop on their journey still uncertain.
The WAC tournament champion claims the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, with UH and Fresno State in line for at-large berths short of that.
The UH athletic department has submitted a bid to host one of the 16 four-team regionals, and the Wahine will remain in Fresno through Sunday's announcement of the NCAA tournament field.
It could add up to a lengthy stay on the mainland, but playing on the road hasn't been much of an issue for the Wahine, who are 17-2 away from Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium.
"The team has really focused well on the road," Coolen said. "They're relaxed. We don't try to do much different that what we do at home."
The WAC tournament was revived last year after a six-year absence. UH eliminated host Fresno State to advance to the final series with Nevada, winning the first game then losing the next two to end the season.
The Wahine responded this season by setting school records for regular-season and WAC wins. They led the league in hitting (.316) and pitching (1.75 earned-run average), and hit a WAC-record 79 home runs while surrendering a league-low 20.
In 18 WAC games, UH's batting average jumped to .380 while the ERA dipped slightly to 1.74. Three UH players hit .400 or better in WAC play -- Kaulana Gould (.448), Tyleen Tausaga (.446) and Kate Robinson (.411).
UH's pitching depth should be key in tournament play. Robinson (15-0, 1.56 ERA) and Justine Smethurst (16-7, 1.69) rank second and third in the WAC in earned-run average, trailing Fresno State ace Robin Mackin (30-9, 1.36). Jessica Morton has been effective out of the bullpen in going 9-1 in 19 relief appearances.
Coolen said he'll determine the rotation based on today's results.
"We're just going to wait and see, and see what will be to our best advantage," Coolen said.
With a week off following their regular-season finale on April 28 at Utah State, the Wahine used the time off to recharge and prepare for final exams. They held an intrasquad scrimmage last Saturday to stay sharp.
"We're well-rested, that's for sure," Coolen said. "When he had our intrasquad, we had kids hitting the ball real well, we had a lot of fresh legs, Kate and Jus pitched real well. Hopefully, we have the mentality that we need to go in and have a good showing and get to championship Saturday."
Fresno State (42-16, 15-3 WAC) is also eyeing a return to the NCAA tournament as the only program in the country to have appeared in the regionals each of the last 25 years.
The Wahine took two of three in a series with the Bulldogs in Honolulu last month and Fresno State has won six straight since. New Mexico State (28-25) is the only other team better than .500 overall.
Notes: Hawaii will host the WAC tournament next season, May 8-10, 2008 at RWSS. ... An academic advisor is traveling with the team to proctor final exams for players who still have tests to take this week. ... The NCAA tournament announcement is scheduled for 9 a.m. Sunday on ESPNews.