The Hawaii softball team made a return to relevance in 2019. Will it build on that act, or recede?
UH, second place in the Big West a year ago, was this week picked to finish third in the eight-team league, behind four-time defending champion Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State.
Coach Bob Coolen launched his 29th season as head coach with the team’s first official practices last week. The regular-season opener is Feb. 6 against Northern Colorado in the Paradise Classic at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium.
The Rainbow Wahine are coming off their finest season since 2013, when they won the Big West in their first year back in the league. The Wahine were 33-16 overall and 14-7 in the BWC in 2019, behind only Fullerton, which won the BWC by a four-game margin. However, the Wahine were in contention going into the final series of the season.
UH lost some very notable players from that team — third baseman Nicole Lopez, workhorse pitcher Brittany Hitchcock, and catcher Heather Cameron. Lopez was a three-time All-Big West first-team selection, while Hitchcock earned it twice (including as a sixth-year senior after going 20-8) and Cameron made it to the second team in her final season.
The most notable newcomers are junior Nawai Kaupe, a Maui High graduate who spent her first two years at Washington, and Sammie Ofoia, a Saint Francis School graduate who is coming home from Southern Illinois-Edwardsville after one season.
“Hitting-wise, I think we’ll be able to replace some of the sticks we lost with some of the players who have transferred in, and some of the freshmen who came into the program,” said Coolen, who is one win away from being the sixth coach to reach 400 victories as a Big West member. “We had a good fall again, and I’m hoping that transcends into this spring season.”
Senior first baseman/catcher Callee Heen, a two-time first-team honoree, is the top overall returnee batting cleanup, with a league-high 15 homers swatted and 31 walks drawn as a junior, leading to a .509 on-base percentage.
Senior utility player Cheeks Ramos, junior center fielder Brittnee Rossi, and sophomore right fielder Mikaela Gandia-Mak are the other top returning position players. Ramos and Rossi were BWC honorable mentions in 2019 while Gandia-Mak made the all-freshman team.
Heen could be buffered by Kaupe and Ofoia in the heart of the order, with a freshman out of Saint Francis, Ka‘ena Keliinoi, hitting No. 2 behind Rossi.
“Our top five should be a solid top five. After that, it’s a matter of where the others fit in,” Coolen said. “We’ll probably have a freshman in there, Rachel Sabourin, and then we’ll have (junior) Bree Soma fit in there, as well as Maya Nakamura, another freshman out of Roosevelt. So, we have a lot of question marks that are gonna be freshmen, but they get in there and hopefully they play with no fear, no inhibitions, and that’s what we need. We can’t have them thinking about what they’re going to do. They just have to do it.”
As for pitching, Coolen will turn to returning all-freshman teamer Izzy Dino to lead a seven-player staff. Dino was 9-6 with 2.93 ERA in her first year of college. She had eight complete games, including a no-hitter against Saint Mary’s. Sophomore Ashley Murphy could be the new No. 2 and freshman Jetta Nannen could be the No. 3 arm. Juniors Emily Klee and Dominique Martinez and freshmen Cira Bartolotti and Amanda Ajari are in the reliever mix.
“We need to establish a No. 2 and a No. 3. So we’re working on that right now,” Coolen said. “We have seven pitchers to do it with, so we’re just trying to see who’s the best at stepping in.”