Lopez leads surging UH into Big West season

UH sophomore Nicole Lopez was named Big West softball field player of the week on Monday after hitting .550 in the Hawaii Pacific Health Rainbow Wahine Classic. Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser
UH sophomore Nicole Lopez was named Big West softball field player of the week on Monday after hitting .550 in the Hawaii Pacific Health Rainbow Wahine Classic. Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser

Coming out of a relatively chilly February, Nicole Lopez caught fire in March.

The Rainbow Wahine sophomore scuffled through the first three weeks of the season and was hitting .244 through 12 games. With opponents leery of testing her ability to turn on the inside pitch, she went back into the batting cage during a break in the schedule to widen her focus at the plate.

“I wasn’t really seeing the ball too well a few weeks ago,” Lopez said. “Took extra cuts, started seeing the outside because I knew that’s all they were going to pitch me and just caught up to the outside pitch.”

When the calendar flipped so did Lopez’s fortunes.

Over 19 games in UH’s softball version of March madness, Lopez hit .455 with seven doubles, five home runs and 18 RBIs. She closed UH’s nonconference schedule by earning MVP honors in the Hawaii Pacific Health Rainbow Wahine Classic and her 11-for-20 week led to a Big West softball field player of the week award on Monday.

Six of Lopez’s hits last week went to the opposite field, including two line-drive doubles and a home run to right center. She capped the week with a home run to straightaway center in UH’s 4-1 over Purdue on Saturday.

Lopez leads the Big West with seven home runs and will enter league play hitting a team-high .365. She has also locked down third base defensively and has yet to commit an error in March at one of the most demanding positions on the field.

“Coley has a swag,” UH coach Bob Coolen said. “I had several coaches come up to me, ‘your third baseman is amazing.’ For the last three weeks everybody has been commenting.”

Lopez contributed to a collective surge for the Rainbow Wahine to close the nonconference schedule.

UH (21-10) ended its run of tournaments by winning 13 of its last 15 games and takes a six-game winning streak into the Big West season. The NCAA released its first RPI ranking of the season on Monday with UH at No. 55, second among Big West teams behind No. 37 Cal Poly (23-7).

Center fielder Danielle Garcielita is hitting .320 in the leadoff spot and second baseman Sarah Muzik is at .361 while hitting in front of Lopez, who is tied with senior first baseman Heather Morales for the team lead with 21 RBIs. Morales, last week’s Big West honoree, is hitting .329 with five homers.

Freshmen Callee Heen and Angelique Ramos follow Lopez and Morales in the batting order and the RBI chart with 18 and 13.

“Our first two hitters are getting on base and we know three and four and five can drive them in,” Coolen said. “They all had different roles, they had hero roles, they all had RBI roles.”

UH also got production from the bottom third of the order last week with sophomore catcher Heather Cameron going 7-for-18 with three doubles in the seventh spot and left fielder Jordian Hicks hitting .385 in a breakout week in the ninth spot.

The UH pitching staff allowed a total of seven runs in the seven-game Rainbow Wahine Classic for a team ERA of 0.74. Junior Brittany Hitchcock (12-6) posted an ERA of 0.50, struck out 31 and walked none while going 4-0 in the tournament, numbers that might have earned her Big West pitcher of the week honors if not for Cal Poly senior Sierra Hyland’s two wins over No. 9 Oklahoma and 40 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings.

Junior Dana Thomsen (7-3) ranks fifth in the conference with a 1.83 ERA. Senior Kanani Aina Cabrales was sidetracked by an illness early in the season but enters the conference season at 2-1 with a 1.94 ERA.

UH will have nearly two weeks to recharge for the conference season, which opens March 31 against UC Davis at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium.