Hawaii softball team staying local


POSTED: Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Many would look at this as an 0-2 count for the leadoff batter. Before Hawaii takes a swing this softball season, the Rainbow Wahine have two strikes against them.

In October, junior pitcher Justine Smethurst, who helped Australia to an Olympic bronze medal in Beijing, decided not to return after taking last season off. The all-region pick had 35 victories and three perfect games in two seasons.

Then blue-chip freshman center fielder Kelly Majam tore her ACL, sidelining her for the season. The two-time California Division IV player of the year who hit .789 as a senior was expected to have an immediate impact and was penciled in as either a leadoff or cleanup hitter.

Still, it hasn't stopped Hawaii coach Bob Coolen from swinging for the fences in this, his 18th season. The Wahine were picked to finish third in the Western Athletic Conference and Coolen feels it's realistic, considering the loss of five seniors—the heart of the batting order—off the 40-21 NCAA tournament team.

The biggest issues are the youth of the team and the challenging schedule. Hawaii will face up to eight ranked teams in its first 15 games, 10 of which are on the road.

The first five are at home with this week's Oceanic Time Warner Cable Paradise Classic. The Wahine open their 25th season tomorrow against No. 6 Oklahoma at 6 p.m.; the 4 p.m. game pits No. 17 LSU against UAB.

“;This tournament will show us where we are quickly,”; Coolen said. “;We have a top-10 and a top-20 team. UAB and us will be looking to see where we fit in.

“;We went after a high caliber of RPI schedule, that on the assumption of having an ace pitcher (Smethurst) coming back. That's not happening and it was a big blow. Where most Top 25 teams have 30- , 40-game winners, we'll have one experienced non-20-game winner (Courtney Baughman 14-8) and an inexperienced sophomore (Melissa Gonzalez, 0-0 in 11 innings) toeing the rubber.”;

But what Hawaii does have is senior All-America third baseman Clare Warwick, the WAC preseason player of the year. She looks to anchor an infield that likely will include seniors Audrey Andrade at first and Richie-Anne Titcomb at second.

Andrade and senior center fielder Tanisha Milca were also All-WAC selections last season.

“;Clare needs to be a leader on the field, lead by example,”; Coolen said. “;Where she's been surrounded by a strong supporting cast in the past, it's on her shoulders now.

“;We need her to just go out and play her game. She's the preseason WAC player of the year. That's a lot of hype to live up to.”;

After the Classic, Hawaii spends two weeks on the road, sandwiching in a Feb. 18 stop at Loyola Marymount between top fields at the UNLV Louisville Slugger tourney, Feb. 13-15, and Cathedral City (Calif.) Classic, Feb. 19-21.

The Wahine host three tournaments before opening the WAC season March 21 at Louisiana Tech. Unlike last season, Hawaii won't have both Fresno State (preseason WAC No. 1) and Nevada (preseason WAC No. 2) on the road.

“;We're thankful for that,”; said Coolen, whose Rainbow Wahine went 0-6 on that road trip last season.