A decade after Hawaii’s appearance in the Women’s College World Series, the ripples of the impact of a nearly month-long postseason journey continue to come ashore.
Just last year Izzy Dino and Mikaela Gandia-Mak — two members of the Rainbow Wahine 2019 freshmen class — cited the WCWS run as a reason they set Hawaii as a college target before they reached middle school. Kelly (Majam) Elms, the nation’s home run leader as a freshman in 2010, said one of this year’s newcomers, second baseman Rachel Sabourin, showed her a photo of the two of them during an autograph session in Oklahoma City.
“Just to know it’s been 10 years and there’s little girls that watched us on TV or went to the world series and that impacted what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives is pretty cool,” said Elms, now a PE teacher at Liholiho Elementary in Kaimuki.
This week marks 10 years since the Rainbow Wahine made their way to Oklahoma City to cap their journey from Manoa to Las Cruces, N.M., through Stanford, Calif., and on to Tuscaloosa, Ala., site of the most resonant victory in program history.
A few members of that team shared memories of that remarkable run to OKC:
The Wahine closed the regular season at 41-12 overall and 19-1 in Western Athletic Conference play, entering the WAC tournament in Las Cruces ranked 21st in the country and as the tournament’s top seed. The Wahine won their first two games by a combined score of 32-9 then lost to Fresno State 4-3 to force a winner-take-all rematch. Hawaii pounded the Bulldogs 14-3 to add the tournament title to the regular-season crown.
Bob Coolen, head coach: “The odyssey had a lot of twists and turns beginning with the WAC tournament.”
Amanda Tauali’i, senior, first base: “We tried to avoid the hype and the naysayers and tried to keep it in house. That’s the feel we maintained throughout the season. … We faced some adversity in the WAC tournament, it wasn’t like it was a cakewalk into a regional. Any time we played Fresno it was a blood bath, it was a battle.”
Coolen: “(After the loss to Fresno State) that was the first time I saw the kids really were angry … and they were just on fire in the second game.”
Tauali’i: “The catalyst of that was Kelly Majam. I had never seen Kelly Majam mad and she was so mad. I remember her being, ‘we’re going to win this game!’ and everyone was, ‘OK, Kelly, were gonna win this game. Let’s go out and do it.’ She was not happy about it at all.”
Aloha! On this day, May 15, 2010, the Rainbow Wahine defeated Fresno State 14-3 to win the WAC Championship and received the NCAA automatic bid to the Regionals. The 2010 WCWS odyssey would begin at Stanford as the #16 seed. Congratulations! #GoBows pic.twitter.com/CIosdOXEad
— Bob Coolen (@UHawaiiSoftball) May 15, 2020
The Wahine were awarded the 16th seed in the NCAA tournament and sent to the Stanford, Calif., regional. UH run-ruled UC Davis, knocked off host Stanford 6-3 and rolled past Texas Tech 7-1 to advance to its second Super Regional in four years. It would be the second Super Regional for the seniors, who went to Tennessee in 2007 when the Wahine came within a game of the WCWS. This time the trip to would take them back to an SEC ballpark to face to top-seed Alabama.
Katie (Grimes) Profitt, senior catcher: “(Going to a Super Regional) only happens to 16 teams so it was obviously a standard and a bar that was set very high for us as freshmen. So that was what we expected, I think, going into Stanford our senior year. It was kind of like, stepping stone, we have to get through it. But we very much expected to go far in the postseason.
“To be in a David vs. Goliath situation wasn’t foreign to us. It was something that had happened to us a few times. Alabama is a different beast, and the SEC, and their stadium and their fans. They were the sweetheart of that whole season but we were unfazed.”
Alex (Aguirre) Gomez, sophomore, left fielder: “We all grew up playing this game, we all grew up playing travel ball, we all go through the struggles of student-athletes having to perform academically and on the field. So I think once we saw the other team as more of an equal than whatever the front of their jersey said, I think we looked at them more like just another opponent. … It was less about who was in that other dugout and more about just staying true to who we were in our dugout.”
The Super Regional was scheduled to open on Friday, May 28. But heavy rains forced the game to be postponed. Instead the Wahine and Crimson Tide would play a doubleheader on Saturday to open the best-of-three series. Alabama rolled to an 8-0 win in five innings in the first game behind ace Kelsi Dunne’s two-hit performance, pushing UH into an elimination game a half-hour later.
Profitt: “The first game wasn’t easy and it was kind of embarrassing and it’s definitely something we hadn’t experienced that whole season. So we knew that we didn’t want to go out like that.”
Elms, freshman centerfielder: “(Dunne) had a lot of different pitches and the one that I think struck a lot of us out was her rise ball. … She threw it right down the middle but it rose really well, so it’s hard to lay off. Especially as a home-run hitting team, we were swinging at high and hard pitches all the time.”
Elms led off the bottom of the first inning with her 30th home run of the season and freshman shortstop Jessica Iwata gave UH command with a grand slam in the second. The Crimson Tide caught the Wahine with a six-run fifth, but UH regained the lead on Iwata’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the sixth. Stephanie Ricketts earned the win with seven outs of relief, leaving the bases loaded in the seventh, and UH snapped Alabama’s 28-game winning streak with the 8-7 victory.
Elms: “I think Alabama knew they needed to be deeper in the circle if they were going to do well in the world series, so they pitched somebody else (who) hadn’t pitched in a long time. So it benefitted us to play a doubleheader and for them to pitch somebody else because it helped us get a little bit more confident and get our bats going and see the ball well in that big stadium.”
Iwata: “(The grand slam) was amazing. (Dunne) had my number from the very beginning. They had the lefty in when I hit the grand slam, but I was struggling so it felt really nice to get that pick-me-up.”
Coolen: “The kids just weren’t ready to come home, They came out and flushed it and I know the seniors really told everyone to focus. You could be eliminated on the first day you’re playing and they didn’t want to go home. We had already been on the road for three weeks. So they just came out and playing loose and the pitching came together. They started swinging the way they were swinging all year.”
According to the rules of the time, a coin flip would determine home-team honors for the series finale. Coolen left the duty to assistant media relations director Kara Nishimura, who called tails, and the coin came up in UH’s favor. The NCAA changed the rule for the following season, automatically giving the higher seeded team the honors in a deciding game.
Gomez: “For us to win that coin toss to be home on Sunday, that was huge. That would have changed the game. It was the dramatics of two outs, bottom of the seventh … It’s the Cinderella story and it meant so much to us to prove that to everybody.”
UH designated hitter Jenna Rodriguez, who joined the team as a junior-college transfer, hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the first, but Alabama surged ahead with a three-run outburst in the top of the sixth. Ricketts, who struggled in the series opener, closed out the sixth then retired the Tide in order in the top of the seventh.
Profitt: “For a sophomore (Ricketts) to be that resilient and polished and be able to help us out when we needed her and put the team on her back that way speaks highly to who she is as a person and also who she is as a pitcher. She was a very tough girl and she was put in a lot of tough situations that whole year and through her whole career and she knew how to push through it.”
Elms: “I don’t even remember what happened in the top of the seventh. But I just remember coming off the field and the energy in our circle prior to going into the dugout was like ‘we’re going to do this.’ There was fire in the seniors’ eyes, like ‘we are doing this right now.’ ”
Elms led off the bottom of the seventh and worked the count full before watching a changeup drift inside to put the tying run on base. Iwata struck out swinging and Melissa Gonzalez took a called third strike for Dunne’s 16th K of the day. Rodriguez, who had two of UH’s four hits, walked to the plate with Gomez, who played travel ball with Rodriguez in high school, on deck.
Gomez: “Being on the same travel-ball team, I know Jenna. Jenna’s a bulldog. Jenna is all-out competitive. … That’s part of why I told Bob, ‘you gotta get her. Because if she’s interested in coming here, she has that spark, you want her on this team.’ All I was thinking in my head was, ‘I’m not batting.’ It really was like, I have so much faith in this girl and she’s so ready to be that person in this at-bat right now.”
Rodriguez: “I always thought positive. I saw (Dunne) well in the first inning and going up to the plate under that situation, it was anything that’s in my zone I’m going to go for. Because you might not get that many good pitches … so anything close to the zone I was going be super aggressive.”
The ESPN broadcast was barely back from a replay of the previous strikeout when Rodriguez took a cut at Dunne’s 117th pitch of the day.
Rodriguez: “I think every hitter has their favorite pitch and favorite location. I really liked the inside. … I was always a very aggressive hitter and being able to hit the inside pitch you have to have fast hands and be aggressive.”
Coolen: “Nobody was ready for that pitch. (Dunne) threw the identical pitch that she had hit the first time up, high inside, and Jenna had quick hands. You didn’t sneak that ball by her too much.”
The crowd, roaring seconds earlier, hushed as Rodriguez connected and watched the ball sail well beyond the left-field fence and to the right of the foul pole giving Hawaii a 5-4 win and sending the Wahine to the WCWS.
Rodriguez: “I knew I hit the ball as solid as I possibly could, I just didn’t know if it was fair or foul. In that situation with the game on the line I wasn’t about to celebrate unless I knew it was fair. Being mentally focused I would have to get back in the box if it was foul. So I waiting until I knew exactly if I knew if was fair or foul.”
Elms: “I have a vivid memory of being between first and second and I couldn’t walk. I was floating or bounding. My feet were like springs. I was bounding around the bases. … I didn’t think it was foul, from my perspective it looked like it was out from the get-go. I was excited from the moment it hit her bat and I was flying.”
Iwata: “I remember the cameramen were already in Alabama’s dugout prior to that pitch. Next thing you know it’s out of the park and everybody’s jumping out of the dugout and it’s crazy.”
Gomez: “The first person I was looking for was the coaches. Looking at Dee (Wisneski) and looking at (Kaulana Gould) and looking at Bob and seeing the emotion come over him. And looking in the stands and our two little rows of green in that sea of crimson. It was crazy because it went silent.”
WALK OFF TO THE #WCWS!!! 🤙
Jenna Rodriguez clinched @HawaiiSB's first-ever trip to the Women's College World Series in dramatic fashion, hitting a walk off bomb to eliminate the number 1 overall seed, Alabama, in 2010.#NCAASoftball pic.twitter.com/MOXE1xlIuA
— NCAA Softball (@NCAAsoftball) May 23, 2020
The Wahine left Tuscaloosa early the next morning bound for Oklahoma City, where they would edge Missouri 3-2 in the opening game of the 2010 WCWS on senior Traci Yoshikawa’s go-ahead home run in the seventh. That win and the dramatics in Alabama, which later led to an ESPY nomination for the year’s top upset, increased fan interest back home and in OKC.
Nanci Coolen, coach’s wife who shuttled between Hawaii and the team’s various postseason stops: “Bob would say, ‘can you pick up 14 batting gloves and I need resin and I need whatever.’ … I was so bummed for the girls and him because they never saw the hoopla and the fan base that was meeting at Big City Diner or Murphy’s. I was, ‘you guys are on the front page of the paper and everybody’s talking about it.’ I’m walking around and people are like, ‘did you hear if the softball team won?’ And I was, ‘I wish they could see this.’ ”
Bob Coolen: “Going into (the Missouri) game no one gave us a chance. It was like Hawaii’s here, 0-2, going home, buh-bye. Then we won and after that game we had to stay and it was a mandatory one-time autograph session. The line for our autograph session was unbelievably long. I had been told they had to order Hawaii stuff four times.
“The next day I said, ‘the girls want to do autographs,’ and they said ‘you don’t have to, it’s only mandatory once.’ But I went, ‘but look at all the people outside the tent.’ Our players really appreciated that so many fans came to support the underdog.”
The Wahine run finally ran out of steam with losses to eventual champion UCLA and Arizona. Gomez thrilled the crowd by winning a 17-pitch at-bat against UCLA with a home run. Yoshikawa, who was named to the WCWS all-tournament team, hit UH’s NCAA-record 158th home run of the season against Arizona. The season-long barrage, which included 49 in light-air parks at New Mexico State, Boise State, Utah State and Nevada, led to some grousing about UH’s aging Easton bats and likely contributed to changes in bat testing policy.
Tauali’i, BYU assistant coach: “Everyone thought it was the bats, but we’re sitting there and were like, ‘you didn’t see what we did all year in the weight room.’ That part was a little bit weird when people said it was the bats, and I’m sure they had something to do with it, but we worked our butts off in the weight room.
“People remember those bats and how live they were, but to me I know what we did so it doesn’t really bother me that much, because I know. It doesn’t matter if they believe me or (don’t) believe me, that’s what I know. I know we put in the work and to me that’s the most important thing.”
Over the past 10 years, only two teams from non-Power Five conferences have reached the WCWS and Hawaii remains the last such team to win a game in Oklahoma City.
Profitt, head coach at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla: “It was a perfect way to end it. Of course, I wish we could have gone all the way, but to be able to say I got to play in the world series, let alone the way that we got there, it was such an unbelievable experience. I’ll cherish it. It’s something that’ll be a part of me, helped define me, all of that. I wish I could give a little bit of that to everybody.”
Softball Celebrates 10th Anniversary of Women's College World Series Run https://t.co/BuVkykUBaC
— Hawaii Softball (@HawaiiSB) May 30, 2020