Rainbows look to the future
Coach Mike Trapasso hopes his team can be WAC contenders instead of pretenders
Unlike most other college sports seasons, baseball ends rather non-eventfully. There's no banquet, no awards ceremony. Since school is already over, the players merely say their goodbyes and go on to summer school, summer leagues, pro baseball, or the regular work force.
"We have our banquet before the season," Hawaii coach Mike Trapasso said.
At that time, back in January, optimism was abundant for the Rainbows, who were coming off a trip to the regionals in 2006. It took the eventual College World Series champions to end their season.
UH entered 2007 as co-favorites to win the Western Athletic Confernce championship and go to the regionals again. Instead, UH's season ended Saturday in the WAC tournament, after Hawaii went 11-13 in league play and 1-2 in the tourney.
Today, Trapasso and UH players look back at 2007 and ahead to 2008.
RENO, Nev. » For a strong college baseball program, a season that ends before Memorial Day is largely forgettable.
Sixth-year Hawaii coach MIke Trapasso, his Rainbows and their fans had hoped 2007 would be a year that firmly restored UH as a perennial power following the 2006 campaign in which UH reached the NCAA regionals for the first time in 13 years.
But Trapasso said he had a feeling after a listless fall camp that a repeat might not be in the offing. The rest of the league's coaches still made Hawaii a preseason co-favorite to win the Western Athletic Conference championship.
Unfortunately for the Rainbows, Trapasso was right.
UH closed with a 34-25 record, and a WAC mark of 11-13, plus an early exit from the conference tournament.
"We need to get over the hump of being a team that is a regional contender to a team that is a regional winner," Trapasso said. "With the last out Saturday, it was done. We bid farewell to our seniors and began looking ahead."
He will have to do so without six top contributors, as starting rotation members Ian Harrington and Mark Rodrigues, closer Tyler Davis, first baseman Kris Sanchez, third baseman Justin Frash and shortstop Eli Christensen have all played out their eligibility. Also, center fielder Brandon Haislet will likely be drafted next month and have to decide between a return to Manoa and the allure of pro ball.
Trapasso said 10 pitchers, most from the high school ranks, will be brought in to rebuild the staff that includes top returnees Matt Daly and Jayson Kramer, as well as Josh Schneider, who started 13 games. Also, Nick Rhodes displayed potential in a strong outing against Fresno State on the last day of the regular season, as well as a save against the Bulldogs in the second-to-last game.
Rhodes falls into the category of crafty left-hander, the prototype Trapasso recruit, especially for home games at Murakami Stadium. But the coach said his ideal is changing when it comes to pitching prospects.
"We've got a bunch of good arms coming in. Of course, that doesn't mean we have a bunch of good pitchers coming in. We're changing our philosophy. We're bringing in more physical, power-arm guys," Trapasso said. "If Chad (pitching coach Konishi) can teach guys who throw in the high 80s how to have command of three pitches, we think he can do it with guys who throw in the low 90s."
However they are developed, plenty of ready arms will be needed. Since the NCAA mandated a uniform start date of March 1, the 56-game season is compressed and the WAC will play four-game series instead of three.
The nonconference season features road series at Stanford and UC Irvine, a tournament at Arizona State that includes Michigan, and home series against San Diego and Long Beach State. In 2009, UH plays UC Irvine, Mississippi State and Loyola Marymount at home, and travels to Rice and a tournament at Minnesota that also includes Notre Dame and Washington.
"It's going to be a grind, that's for sure," said Trapasso, who is also forced to go on the road more now for quality Division I nonconference games.
Especially if the multi-talented Haislet returns, the Rainbows can field a solid everyday lineup just based on returnees in 2008.
Catcher Landon Hernandez refuses to wilt under any kind of pressure. Second baseman Jon Hee elevated his batting average from .283 to .345 and is steady in the field. Shortstop Nate Young will hit when he plays every day and is strong defensively.
Haislet will be flanked again by Derek DuPree in left and a combination of Evan Zimny and Matt Roquemore in right, with DuPree or Roquemore able to play in the middle if Haislet goes pro.
The preliminary plan is to hand off the infield corners to Vinnie Catricala at third and Kevin Macdonald at first. Both hit over .300 and worked their way into the lineup as freshmen, as Trapasso predicted they would.
"They're tough, they're good students and they'll be ready to take more at-bats next year and become leaders," Trapasso said.
The versatile Macdonald can play any position and gives Trapasso flexibility.
"Right now we have him penciled in at first base, but that can change," he said.
So talent won't be a problem for the Rainbows in 2008. But it wasn't in 2007, either. Something else was missing from a team that didn't improve as the season went on, and lost games because of mental errors on the mound, at the plate, on defense and, most noticeably, on the basepaths.
"We just didn't keep the intensity throughout games, all year. Sometimes we wouldn't get going until the ninth inning," said Hernandez, who acknowledged that the dreaded label of "underachievers" might be deserved.
"I guess you could say that, after going to the regionals last year with a lot of the same players. But we did have somewhat of a younger team this year."
Sanchez turned in one of the greatest single-season batting performances in Rainbows history, but even he faded at times late in the campaign and ended up hitting .362 after dancing with .400 through most of it.
"Obviously we feel like we underachieved, because it's a talented team," said Sanchez, who has come to agreement with the Seattle Mariners. "But it was a learning experience, especially for some of the younger guys who got to play a lot. I'm sure it's going to help them for next year."
Both players said beating two-time WAC champion Fresno State two out of three to end the regular season was the highlight of 2007. But even that is frustrating in a way.
"That's how we should've played all year," Hernandez said.
But like his coach, he is looking forward, not back.
"I see a lot of potential. I know we've got some pitching coming in," said Hernandez, who will be a junior next season. "We're losing key guys like Sanchez and Frash, pitchers like Mark and Ian. We'll go to fall ball and find out what we have."