CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Until late last month, Hawaii Pacific junior Courtney Kessell had the best ERA in Division II while starting the season 14-0 after going only 8-4 as a sophomore.
Kessell keeps HPU going
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The dozens of Norfolk Pines planted behind the outfield fence have a dual purpose. The trees provide an efficient windbreak for the Hawaii Pacific softball field as well as give the Sea Warrior players a visual of their program's history.
It's the perfect perpetual trophy, built by the HPU players and coaching staff in 1993. There's a plaque on one of the trees celebrating the 10th anniversary of the field's completion.
Fifteen years later, the Sea Warrior softball program continues to be steady. One of the biggest reasons for this year's success is junior pitcher Courtney Kessell (18-2), who has helped HPU to a 32-5 record, 17-1 in Pacific West Conference play.
Kessell was 8-4 as a sophomore and "she came out a lot more focused this season," HPU co-head coach Howard Okita said. "She's had good years before but, this year, she got into a groove and is pitching a lot smarter."
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How does a softball pitcher go from a record of 8-4 to 18-2 in less than a year?
If Courtney Kessell could bottle the formula, the junior right-hander for Hawaii Pacific would be rich. But Kessell is happy to settle for her improved confidence and ERA as she tries to help the Sea Warriors to postseason play.
"I think it's all been mental," the 2005 Kailua High graduate said. "Pitching is a mental game and some of (the improvement) is my being more confident in myself.
"I'm learning how to pitch to certain batters and, if one pitch isn't working, that I need to rely on another. It's about learning to work a batter, not trying to throw it by them. I'm not a power pitcher. I try to rely on movement."
Until late last month, Kessell had the best ERA in Division II (0.40) in opening the year 14-0. Her two losses were both by a run at the Cal State Stanislaus Tournament -- 1-0 to the host Warriors and 4-3 to Humboldt State.
"At one point on the mainland, I couldn't feel my fingers; it was colder than I liked," Kessell said. "I couldn't feel the seams on the ball. Hopefully, I can get past that."
Things were a little warmer at Central Oahu Regional Park yesterday. Kessell won her third straight, striking out eight in a 5-1 PacWest win over Chaminade in the first game of a split doubleheader.
Sea Warrior sophomore Sherise Musquiz improved to 14-3 by shutting out the Silverswords in yesterday's second game 5-0. HPU (32-5, 17-1 PWC) has won six straight since the road trip.
Winning helps team unity. But a senior prank on last month's road trip also brought the Sea Warriors together.
The four HPU seniors went "A.W.O.L" on the road trip. Co-coach Bryan Nakasone told the rest of the players that the seniors -- all starters -- had broken team rules and were being put on a plane back to Hawaii.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Hawaii Pacific pitcher Courtney Kessell opened the season with 14 straight wins and sported the lowest ERA in the nation early this year.
The juniors, including Kessell, called a team meeting to discuss how to regroup and continue the rest of the season. The seniors eventually popped back into the hotel "and it was probably the best senior prank ever," junior Krystal Plunkett said. "We were all crying ... and it brought us all together."
"The team is really close and it would have crushed us all if it had been true," Kessell said. "What it did show was that we had leadership for next season."
But first, there's the matter of this year. HPU isn't getting much respect in the polls. The Sea Warriors were eighth as of the last West Region rankings.
"I'm really confident in the team this year," said Plunkett, who came into yesterday's games as one of the top hitters (.413, 28 RBI). "I know that if I don't get a hit, one of my teammates will do it.
"And our pitchers are really on it this year. Courtney is more confident, has been working really hard. She gets into a zone and nothing affects her."
Co-head coach Howard Okita thinks this year's squad is not as deep as last year's, a team that went 31-15. But Okita, who led Hawaii Loa to the 1991 NAIA title, feels there might be more athleticism.
"The key is we have a lot of seasoned players, players who have started two, three, four years for us," Okita said. "We have talented, athletic players.
"I look at our losses and out of the five, three could have gone either way. I think we've proved that we can win and that we can play with the mainland teams."
"The difference this year is that our pitchers have become pitchers instead of throwers," Nakasone added. "Last year, Sherise was a surprise as a freshman. This year, she is learning to mix up her pitches.
"Courtney has matured mentally, realizes she doesn't need to strike everyone out and has learned to let her defense help her out."
And Kessell knows focus can do wonders.
"I think we can go pretty far if we continue to pitch well, hit well, play defense well," she said. "We all have to believe we can win."