UH softball has it tough
Expectations high as Rainbow Wahine open season
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A year ago, memories of coming up one win short of postseason play drove the Hawaii softball team to one of its greatest seasons in the program's history.
And after finishing one win shy of the Women's College World Series, the Rainbow Wahine begin the new season with much the same motivation.
"It definitely makes us hungrier because we were one step away and our entire team knows we have the ability to take that next step," senior center fielder Kaulana Gould said.
"We try to keep the same attitude, keep pushing, keep striving, keep working hard and everything's going to fall into place."
No. 16 Hawaii opens the season against Kentucky tomorrow in the Oceanic Time Warner Cable Paradise Classic.
Central Florida and Long Beach State open the four-day tournament at 4 p.m., with UH and Kentucky at 6.
The Wahine return seven starters off last year's 50-13 team that won the Western Athletic Conference regular-season title and will be a target for opponents this season.
"It's going to be a tougher season," UH coach Bob Coolen said. "We're not a surprise this year, we're not a mystery. We're being gunned for."
RAINBOW WAHINE SOFTBALL
Preseason ranking: 16 (NFCA/USA Today Coaches poll)
2007 record: 50-13 (16-2 WAC)
2007 postseason: Won Los Angeles regional, lost to Tennessee in Super Regional
Opening weekend: Oceanic Time Warner Cable Paradise Classic, Tomorrow-Sunday, Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium
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There won't be any sneaking up on folks this year.
Not after finishing one win shy of a trip to the Women's College World Series and certainly not with a national ranking prefixing the team's name.
"We've got bulls-eyes on us front and back," Hawaii softball coach Bob Coolen said. "Last year we were unknown, we were still young with two seniors and as the season went on we came together in a big way and the season snowballed and we had a great run.
"This year we're really not a mystery to anyone."
Kentucky will be the first to take a shot at the No. 16 Rainbow Wahine as Hawaii opens the season tomorrow in the four-team Oceanic Time Warner Cable Paradise Classic.
Long Beach State plays Central Florida at 4 p.m., with UH and Kentucky scheduled to meet at 6. The tournament continues Friday with UH playing LBSU and Central Florida. Bracket play begins Saturday with the finals on Sunday.
The expectations surrounding the Wahine this season stem largely from the return of seven starters off last year's 50-13 team that won the Western Athletic Conference regular-season title and reached the NCAA Super Regionals before falling to Tennessee.
Though they return the bulk of last year's team, the Wahine must also replace three leaders -- their top hitter, No. 1 pitcher and a spark-plug infielder -- as they look to build on last year's landmark campaign.
"We have to build. In 2003 we won the WAC and went to Texas for the regionals. In 2004, we did nothing. We went from up here to down here and went nowhere," Coolen said, his hand dropping from eye-level to his belt. "Our players have to understand that that can't happen."
The Wahine return a senior-laden lineup led by preseason WAC Player of the Year Kate Robinson. Robinson set school records with 19 home runs and 72 RBIs last season while going 17-1 in the circle with 101 strikeouts.
"It's just a matter of picking the right pitches," Robinson said of trying to follow up her breakout year at the plate. "You don't try to think about that kind of stuff, just look for your pitch and worry about each at-bat one at a time."
Robinson will play first base and remain second in the pitching rotation even after the loss of Justine Smethurst, who took a leave from school to try out for the Australian Olympic team this spring.
Junior Courtney Baughman, who went 5-2 last season and spent the fall rehabbing a sore shoulder, will start the opener tomorrow. Senior Jessica Morton returns in the relief role with freshman Melissa Gonzalez possibly figuring in as a third starter.
"We don't want to use Kate in a different role as we did last year," Coolen said. "We're going to use her in the same capacity and let Courtney step in. When we have Kate at first, we have a veteran lineup. And Courtney, this is her third year, it's not like she's a freshman pitcher. She's waiting for that breakthrough."
Baughman, 9-5 as a freshman, said sitting out the fall has actually added some zip to her delivery.
"I think the time off was really good for me personally," said Baughman, who began throwing just before Christmas break. "I did a lot of rehab with our trainer in the weight room and it feels a lot stronger and feels a lot better."
Also returning is junior third-baseman Clare Warwick, who was named a Louisville Slugger/NFCA second-team All-American last season when she hit .375.
Warwick and shortstop Valana Manuma hold down the left side of the infield and the outfield is set with Brandi Peiler, Kaulana Gould and Tanisha Milca returning from a lineup that hit .309 and belted 84 homers. Sophomore Katie Grimes is also back after solidifying the catcher spot last year.
"I'm feeling really relaxed going into this season, having hitters like that behind me," said Warwick, slated to hit second. "That's part of the luxury with this team. We've got such a good hitting lineup it makes it so easy to do your thing, because if you don't the person behind you will."
The biggest question marks entering the spring were on the right side of the infield with the departures of Tyleen Tausaga at first and Alana Power at second.
With Tausaga (.402, 15 HRs last season) now a student assistant, junior Audrey Andrade steps in at first when Robinson pitches.
Junior Richie-Anne Titcomb emerged from a three-player chase for the second base job to earn a start tomorrow. Gonzalez and Traci Yoshikawa also remain in contention for playing time.
"(Titcomb) hit the best over the weekend (in three scrimmages with Chaminade)," Coolen said. "And she's the most experienced."
Hawaii's early-season schedule includes four top 25 teams and an exhibition game against the U.S. national team. The Wahine will host the WAC tournament for the first time, May 7-10, at RWSS.
Hawaii's lineup for its season opener tomorrow:
RF Tanisha Milca
3B Clare Warwick
CF Kaulana Gould
1B Kate Robinson
LF Brandi Peiler
SS Valana Manuma
DH Malamaisaua Manuma
C Katie Grimes
2B Richie-Anne Titcomb
P Courtney Baughman