DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM|
Hawaii softball coach Bob Coolen finally won't have to worry on Selection Sunday; the Wahine are assured of a postseason spot.
for the Coolens
The UH softball coach's family gathers
with the team for Selection Sunday
This is a Selection Sunday like no other Bob Coolen has ever experienced. Not in his 20 years as a head or assistant coach. Certainly not in his 12 years as head man for the Hawaii softball program.
Today, Coolen will be relaxed. He and the Wahine plan to show up at Eastside Grill 30 minutes before the start of the 4 p.m. broadcast on ESPNEWS to chat and order food.
There is no anxiety on the menu today. There are no doubts.
Hawaii knows it is in the NCAA Tournament's 64-team field. The Wahine, after all, ARE the champions of the Western Athletic Conference.
With that title comes an automatic berth. Coolen doesn't care to which of the eight regionals Hawaii will be sent ... well, maybe with the exception of Tucson, Ariz.
Hillenbrand Stadium has not been kind to the Wahine in their two postseason trips there as an at-large entry. They went 1-4 and were outscored a combined 16-5 in the losses.
But Coolen isn't thinking about that today. Not on the second Sunday of May, where most households are celebrating Mother's Day. Coolen and wife Nancy have two children -- daughter Demi, 8, and son Bo, 7 -- but ...
"It's Father's Day in our house," said Nancy Coolen. "I've been telling him for years that I want to switch. He gets May, I get June.
"Oh, he tries, but he's clearly not focused on me. It's on that yellow ball.
"Selection Sunday is always on Mother's Day. I get to go with him to watch the show. But I wouldn't want it any different. It's great to know the team is going this year. I wouldn't want to be taken to brunch and say, 'Oh, what a great year you almost had.' "
There's none of that today because Hawaii has had a great year, literally a banner year, with a 37-18 overall record, 17-3 in the WAC. The Wahine will be on a plane either tomorrow or Tuesday, stopping as close as Fullerton, Calif., or as far as Gainesville, Fla.
Coolen doesn't care. There will be no tears today, not like last year, when the team watched hoping the slimmest of hopes, hoping that "Hawaii" would magically appear on the bracket on the TV screen.
"I know I will not be as anxious as all the other times," said Coolen. "We've been second-fiddle (at-large) and had to worry about our seed. This year there's a different atmosphere around it.
"What's interesting is the team is anxious to be out here and practice. In other years, they weren't. But this year, they wanted it, and came on through thick and thin, through a couple of kids not coming back and a couple of injuries. There was always someone ready to step it up."
Hawaii came into the year without its No. 1 pitcher and No. 1 catcher. Sheri Oronoz (18-12) and Michelle Mumaw decided not to return to school.
Stepping up were two sophomores, pitcher Melissa Coogan and catcher Denise Dahlberg. The two began connecting when playing on the same team last summer and it continued this spring, with Coogan going 29-9 and tying the school record for wins in a season.
When two-time WAC Player of the Year Kate Judd struggled at the plate, junior Stacey Porter picked up the slack. Porter had 17 home runs this year en route to setting the UH career mark (38) and led the WAC in hitting (.468) and eight other categories.
Hawaii led the WAC in team batting average (.284) and six other categories, including homers (40) and runs (217). It's one of the reasons Coolen thinks this year's team can go where no Wahine team has gone before ... to the Women's College World Series.
"We have more hitters 1 through 9 than the Brooke Wilkins teams," said Coolen of the All-America pitcher who led UH to the regional finals in 1995 and '96. "Those teams were all her and maybe four hitters that we could count on. This team, we can go as deep as No. 7 and our Nos. 8 and 9 (Noelle Izumi and Justina Kahaku) have hit the ball well and keep rallies going. Except for those two, everyone in the lineup has the potential to hit it over the fence.
"I'm ecstatic that we've made it this far. Whatever happens from here is just gravy. It's a matter of going out and playing our game, not putting pressure on ourselves and not losing that edge."
Coolen said the season turned after the Wahine split with WAC rival Fresno State to open the conference season at 2-2.
"The team said this is what we can do in the WAC if we want to win it," said Coolen. "When Tulsa beat Fresno State twice and we were on a roll, we all knew that this (title) was ours to lose.
"What sticks in my mind is, after the Fresno series, Denise Dahlberg came out and said, 'Let's just go out and win them all. Then we don't have to worry about who's No. 1 because we'll be No. 1.' She said it nonchalantly, but we came really close to that goal."
After opening 2-2, the Wahine won 11 consecutive WAC games and 15 of 16. The only blemish was a 2-1 loss in eight innings to San Jose State in the final home game on April 26.
"We went 17-1 at home, 11-1 in the WAC," said Coolen. "When we lost that last game, there were so many sad faces. I'm telling them, 'Ladies, we had a great home stand.' They were sad they had lost on Senior Day.
"I am very satisfied with 11-1. We could have easily been 10-2, 9-3 or worse. Any combination and we would have been out of it (the title race). Personally, I'm very happy with this team."
Coolen, at 45, would like to coach at Hawaii for at least the next five years. After the season, he plans to sit down with new athletic director Herman Frazier and discuss his future, both short and long term.
"I'll put things on the table, say this is a place that I'd dearly like to stay at, whether it be coaching or administration," said Coolen, whose record is 525-369. "I'd like to coach until I'm 50, which means one goal in the next five years is to get a five-year contract. I'd like to coach until I can't throw batting practice any more.
"But there is one thing. My daughter wants to play for me. She's 8. That means 10 years to contend with. She says she really wants to play for her daddy, and that's a pretty neat goal to shoot for if I can last that long."
Coolen has been at Hawaii 11 years longer than he thought he would be. After two years as Rayla Allison's assistant (1990-91), Coolen went 34-33 in his first year as the Wahine head coach, 13-23 in the Big West.
"I thought I was out of here after the first year," said Coolen, whose 500th career win came on March 8. "I went home (to Massachusetts) and lifeguarded all summer. I got a phone call in August, asking me to come back and I was here by Labor Day.
"At the beginning of this year, this was the most frustrating team I'd ever had. The coaching staff never knew from game to game which team was going to show up. We had big wins over teams we weren't supposed to beat and we lost to teams we shouldn't have lost to. But this team, unlike others we've had, set goals and stayed focused on them."
Coolen says after he retires from softball he'd like to remain as an administrator, perhaps in compliance or facilities. He knows what he'd like to see happen to the Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium, starting with moving the fence back 20 feet to the international distance of 220.
"If we're going to host the USA Cup here on an annual basis, we need to move to the international distance," he said. "And I'd like to see us have a better backdrop in center field, move the scoreboard, have some type of seating, maybe some palm trees. You look at the baseball stadium and they have the view of Diamond Head. We have the tennis courts."
The stadium also is missing four All-America signs. There are five on the left-field fence with four others supposed to go on the right-field fence: Melissa McGie, Janelle Gonzales, Desiree Duran and Kate Judd.
Coolen expects he'll need to add a fifth in right to balance it out, with the anticipation of Porter being named later this year.
But that's for the future.
Today is all about today and where the team will be headed tomorrow.