Softball: Rainbow Wahine open Big West vs. UCR

After 33 games and a 10-day break, the University of Hawaii softball team starts over Friday night.

The Rainbow Wahine open the Big West schedule against the conference’s hottest team in UC Riverside. The three-game series opens with Friday’s 6 p.m. meeting at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium and the Wahine and Highlanders play a 4 p.m. doubleheader on Saturday.

UH took spring break to rejuvenate from a grueling stretch of non-conference tournaments and enter Big West play at 19-14. Following a doubleheader against Columbia on March 17, the team took some time off from the field and got back in the weight room to regroup for seven season-defining weekends of conference play.

“We’re hoping we’re fresh where our bats are little more lively, we have a little bit more strength and the three-game series and the time will help us focus a little bit more rather than playing every day,” said UH coach Bob Coolen, who focused on revisiting fundamentals when the team returned to practice early this week.

The Rainbow Wahine showed off bursts of power and impressive pitching at times in the nonconference schedule, including a run of eight wins in nine games. But maintaining consistency was a challenge, evidenced by a 2-5 stretch prior to spring break, and will be the key to returning to contention in the Big West two years after rolling to the conference title and a season removed from a 7-14 finish.

UH has yet to lose to UC Riverside in six meetings since rejoining the Big West in the 2013 season, but the Highlanders (28-7) return to Manoa with the nation’s leader in victories in junior Chelsea Ponce. The right-hander transferred to UCR last year and redshirted. She enters the series at 20-7, ranks 15th nationally with a 1.10 earned-run average and threw the program’s first no-hitter against Bethune Cookman last Saturday at the LMU Invitational.

With Ponce keeping the Highlanders in just about every game she throws, UCR — which went 8-37 in Big West play the last two years — has backed her up by hitting .310 as a team and arrived in town with an 11-game winning streak.

“Once winning gets contagious, it’s hard to lose. because everything seems to go your way,” Coolen said. “To be a 20-game winner at this point is really phenomenal right now.”

UH enters the series led by sophomore first baseman Heather Morales (.356, 26 RBIs), sophomore shortstop Sarina Jaramillo (.340) and senior catcher/outfielder Kayla Wartner (.330, eight HRs, 22 RBI) for a lineup that leads the Big West with 35 home runs.

UH right-handers Kanani Aina Cabrales (9-9, 3.01 ERA) and Brittany Hitchcock (9-5, 2.56) had time to rest their arms and the Wahine defense will need to be sharp against UCR.

UCR is third among Big West team in the season’s first RPI released on Monday at No. 63. Cal State Fullerton leads the league at No. 47 followed by CSUN (57), UCR, Long Beach State (68), Hawaii (82), Cal Poly (88), UC Davis (95) and UC Santa Barbara (136).