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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Seeing is believing for three softball players from Hawai'i

By Dennis Anderson
Advertiser Staff Writer

The night before University of the Pacific's softball team opened a make-or-break series with Cal State Fullerton Saturday in Stockton, Calif., two of the Tigers' three starters from Hawai'i prepared themselves.

Second baseman Aloha Yamaguchi (University '99, of Kahalu'u) said she and right fielder Nicole Inouye (Sacred Hearts '99, of Kaimuki) "went to our field Friday night and visualized. With nothing but the flood lights around the field, we imagined all good thoughts and visualized our success for the weekend."

The visualization became reality, as 18th-ranked UOP ended seventh-ranked Fullerton's 32-game win streak and won the series, 2 games to 1, to take over first place in the Big West Conference.

"(The visualization) indeed did us good; we won and made it happen," Yamaguchi said.

The third Hawai'i starter for UOP, center fielder Estee Okumura (Punahou '99, of Kapahulu), drove in the winning run in the pivotal game of the series with a double to the right-field wall in the sixth inning. Inouye had opened the winning rally with a bunt single.

"Without these three individuals, we would not be where we are at," coach Brian Kolze said. Pacific could be in the top 15 when new national rankings are announced later today.

Okumura, the Advertiser's 1999 state Position Player of the Year, has been a starter (168 straight games) and a star since she arrived at UOP with a full scholarship. She ranks in Pacific's career top-5 in five offensive categories, including second in RBIs with 121. And she has more than a year to go.

As a sophomore last season, Okumura was first-team All-Big West Conference and second-team All-Western Region for NCAA Division I. She led the Tigers in batting at .345 (fifth highest season total in UOP history) and had a season-record 42 RBIs.

An infielder in high school, "she converted herself into one of the best outfielders in the West," Kolze said.

This season, Kolze said he "had to move her around because of injuries to others. She has played second base and third base in addition to the outfield. Her role has changed a little, but her contribution hasn't. She is the best athlete in our program."

Playing multiple positions may have taken a toll on Okumura's hitting. Her batting average was .206 and she was in a 2-for-29 slump on March 9, but she has fought back to .278. "It was hard mentally to adjust to different positions," she said.

Okumura has not made an error at any position in her last 27 games.

Despite her records and honors in softball, Okumura is prouder of her academic achievements.

"I've grown to learn that school is not just softball; academics is an important part of it," she said. "You have to be a good, well-rounded student, and that takes up a whole bunch of time. In high school, I didn't put so much time into it."

She has a 3.3 cumulative grade-point average, with a semester peak of 3.7, and made Academic All-Region last year. "I'm proud of myself for that," Okumura said. Her major is sports medicine.

"Estee is one of the finest players I've ever coached," Kolze said. "Aloha and Nicole do whatever it takes to get better every day."

Yamaguchi and Inouye were walk-ons who were role players until this season. They have earned partial scholarships.

Yamaguchi has started all 49 games this year, mostly at second base. "The first year in there as a starter is a new experience for me, especially at this level. I love it," she said.

Inouye had been a pinch runner and backup outfielder before this season. "Our injuries opened the door for her and she really stepped up to the opportunity for herself," Kolze said. "She has made huge contributions."

She hit a bases-loaded triple in the bottom of the sixth against Utah to break the game open.

"It feels good to get my chance," said Inouye, who is batting .215 and fielding .972, starting 35 games.

Inouye is an economics major with a 3.69 GPA. "It's a big deal for me to do good," she said.

Pacific's three Hawai'i starters "have brought part of their culture to our team," Kolze said. "They introduced us to Hawaiian food and music."

Next year, he will return the favor. "We are coming to Hawai'i for some games in their senior year," Kolze said. "It will be nice to be able to bring them home. Their parents have spent a lot to come to see them play here."

SHORT HOPS: Aloha Yamaguchi started her visualization ritual the night before Pacific met then-No. 5 California in its opening game this season. "I had so many butterflies, but good butterflies," she said. "I was nervous and anxious to prove I belonged. ... All three of us went to field and took time to visualize and enjoy the moment. . . .The next day, against an All-American pitcher, I hit a single in my first at-bat. We beat Cal. Right from there I knew this was going to be an awesome season." ... Hawai'i is the second-ranking state in enrollment at Pacific, behind California. Many Islanders are in the School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. ... Pacific had a big luau last month. ... Former UH softball starter (1996-99) Regina Ka'aihili helps coach UOP when she can; she's a graduate student in the time-demanding pharmacy school. ... Yamaguchi's twin sister, Kea, came to Pacific with her in 1999 but returned home and is a back-up catcher for Hawai'i. ... Pacific is 36-13 and has won 15 of its last 16. ... Estee Okumura has stolen 15 bases in 16 attempts this year. She is fourth on the UOP career stolen-base list with 56, tied for second in doubles with 36, second in triples with 12 and fifth in home runs with 14. ... At Punahou, Okumura was first-team all-state in softball (she played shortstop) and basketball.