Rainbow Wahine nearly home free
By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer
The 20th-ranked University of Hawai'i softball team will try to prove again this weekend that the best things in life are free.
As in, free admission, free live TV.
Hawai'i, ranked No. 20 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll and No. 23by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association/USA Today, takes on arch rival Fresno State in a pivotal three-game Western Athletic Conference series starting with today's 6 p.m. opener at Rainbow Wahine Stadium.
The teams will meet again tomorrow in a 4 p.m. doubleheader, with those two games televised live on KFVE.
With free TV and free admission, plus a 17-game win streak and home run record-setting lineup, UH softball (39-11 overall, 17-0 WAC) is making a strong case as the best entertainment value in town.
"This team is special," said Jim Leahey, KFVE's play-by-play announcer who has been the voice of UH sports since 1984. "It is a terrific experience to sit there and watch these girls — who are not very big — just rip the ball out of there."
The Rainbow Wahine can clinch the WAC's regular-season championship with a victory over Fresno State (33-14, 12-3), and coach Bob Coolen said the 40-win mark is a key milestone toward securing an NCAA regional at-large berth, should they fail to win the WAC Tournament.
"I think it should bode well for us," Coolen said. "With a 56-game schedule, winning 40 and the WAC (regular season) title ... those two things should set ourselves up well with the NCAA selection committee."
But first, Hawai'i's power-laden lineup — which leads the nation with 123 home runs and is just 11 shy of the NCAA record of 134 by Arizona last year — must contend with a strong Fresno State pitching staff that features three effective starters: sophomore right-handers Michelle Moses (8-0, 1.11 ERA) and Mckenzie Oakes (11-6, 1.96), and junior left-hander Morgan Melloh (14-8, 2.71).
The Bulldogs also have history on their side, leading the all-time series with UH, 59-15. They are coming off a three-game sweep of New Mexico State and received seven points worth of votes in the NFCA/USA Today poll, only three spots out of the Top 25.
"They have three legitimate pitchers, they beat (No. 15) Texas," Coolen said. "In the past, they've owned us. But this is our turn to go out and play the game we're capable of playing."
That game has made the Rainbow Wahine the talk of the town, drawing oohs and ahs from capacity crowds of over 1,000 at the previous home series against Louisiana Tech. After an 8-5, 9-0 doubleheader sweep on April 17 that included six majestic home runs, the UH players stayed behind the visitors' dugout for half an hour to sign autographs from adoring fans, young and old.
"I was blown away," said freshman center fielder Kelly Majam, who is tied for first in the nation with 25 home runs. "I called my parents back home (in California) and told them about all these kids who wanted to get my autograph. It's pretty cool, because I remember being in their shoes, being like them looking up to college players."
Coolen and Majam said they are being recognized and approached around town, with strangers congratulating them on their season so far.
"We'll be at the (airport) baggage claim, and people come up and say, 'Where's that little girl who is hitting all the home runs?' " Coolen said. "These are special times, we're the talk of the spring sports. It's exciting for the players."
Majam, a 5-foot-3 redshirt freshman from Pine Valley, Calif., echoed that thought.
"I never played in front of that many people before (as in the LA Tech series), plus all the people watching on TV," she said. "Not too many people in college softball have. I'm super excited about this week, it's a big and crucial week. We want three wins, not just one."
EXTRA BASES: Coolen said UH has not put in a bid to host an NCAA Regional series, and it's unlikely it would have received one, anyway. UH will be on the road for the WAC Tournament May 12 through May 15 in Las Cruces, N.M, with the Regionals set for May 21 to 23. "In reality, the (NCAA) committee probably would not want to fly three other teams here. They'd rather have us stay on the road."
DONATION BOX AVAILABLE TONIGHT AND TOMORROW
Donations to the UH softball program will be accepted during all three games of the team's series against Fresno State tonight and tomorrow. A collection box will be located on the first row of the bleachers, toward the third-base side of the stands.
All proceeds will benefit the Hawai'i softball program. This donation method is being administered on a trial basis, as a result of UH softball fans requesting a way in which they could make on-site donations to the team. Donations can also be made online at www.KoaAnuenue.org or by calling 956-3459.