It’s a hot spring afternoon. Excited fans scour for seats an hour before game time. Carrying umbrellas and cold drinks to ward off the heat, they maneuver the aisles, squeezing past players’ parents and dodging young girls proudly clad in youth team uniforms. By the time the game starts, the packed crowd of 1,200 is eager to hear that sharp pop the bat makes when it breaks contact with the ball, sending it beyond the outfield fence.
Web extra: Coach Coolen speaks on the winning season
That scene repeated itself throughout the month of April—fans cramming into the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium, turning their gaze collectively toward home plate, and then cheering wildly when a home run was launched.
During a magical and exciting 2010 softball season, the Rainbow Wahine hit their way into the record books and into everyone’s hearts. Capturing the attention of a wide and growing audience that stretched from the 50th state to Oklahoma City, the Wahine captivated old fans and new with their penchant for hitting home runs, winning ways and passion for their sport.
The team concluded its finest season in school history in June. It advanced to the Women’s College World Series, smashed the national record for home runs and finished the season ranked 7th in the country. Along the way, Hawaiʻi garnered a 50–16 record, broke numerous school records and pulled off one upset after another on the national stage.
“It was definitely a dream season,” says centerfielder Kelly Majam. The freshman out of Pine Valley, Calif., led the nation with 30 homers and earned second-team All-American honors. “It’s something that I wanted to do since I was little, to play in the postseason in college, to get to go to Women’s College World Series. It was definitely a lot of fun. The team definitely bonded really well on the road. We spent so much time together, we had to bond well. It was fun and an experience for all the players.”
Smashing the record
While the Rainbow Wahine are no strangers to the NCAA postseason tournament, this year’s squad went farther than any previous Hawaiʻi team. They homered their way to a Western Athletic Conference title to earn a berth to the NCAA Tournament.
After winning the Stanford Regional, Hawaiʻi played at top-seeded Alabama in the Super Regionals. Down to the last out in the final inning of the decisive winner-take-all final, Jenna Rodriguez hit a two-run homer that silenced the hometown crowd of 3,100 and set off a wild Rainbow Wahine celebration.
Rodriguez’ hit was nominated for an ESPY Best Upset award. “As we left Alabama, they said she probably wouldn’t be allowed back into the state because of hitting the run that sent the number 16 seed to the College World Series,” recalls Head Coach Bob Coolen. The 5-4 win qualified the UH team for its first-ever Women’s College World Series and a shot at the national title.
Moanalua High School infielder Traci Yoshikawa’s two-run homer lifted Hawaiʻi to a 3-2 win over Missouri in the Oklahoma City opener. Home runs by Yoshikawa and outfielder Alexandra Aguirre in the next two games couldn’t save the team from season-ending losses to UCLA and Arizona.
Still, the team won legions of fans. Of the eight teams in the series, Hawaiʻi was the first to sell out of its team shirts, and young girls waited to get Rainbow Wahine autographs after games.
“A lot of people saw us as being different because we weren’t from the mainland and we seemed so far away,” says third baseman Melissa Gonzalez. The Moreno Valley, Calif., junior earned first team All-American honors and had 25 homers. “It was cool being a part of that. It was like we shouldn’t be there coming from a small island. The fact we were there shocked every one.”
They had come a long way from the February season opener—a loss to McNeese State in front of a few hundred fans. The players held a meeting the following day. Coaches made some adjustments.
Hawaiʻi had a 9-6 record after its first mainland road trip. The team started coming together over the course of several March tournaments at home. On its first WAC road trip in April, the Rainbow Wahine hit 39 homers to go undefeated in eight games.
By then, Hawaiʻi had 106 homers. Subsequent home games were suddenly overflowing with fans eager to see if Hawaiʻi could break Arizona’s record of 134.
A homer by Kauaʻi’s Jessica Iwata at the WAC tournament was the record breaker. Hawaiʻi went on to win the program’s third conference title. Additional post-season homers pushed the new national record to 158.
Majam credits the offensive prowess to the team’s focus on hitting in practices and continuous lifting in the weight room. Most teams stop lifting once the season starts.
“I knew we were capable of hitting a lot of home runs but I didn’t realize it could be in one season,” Majam says. “That definitely caught me by surprise. I knew we’d be a good power-hitting team. But I didn’t think it would be astronomical. I’ve never been on a team this strong.”
“It was really fun being a leader on this team,” says catcher Katie Grimes, psychology major and lone player from Florida. “All the girls were open to things we asked of them. We shared something really special this season and I hope we continue that.”
After 19 years on the job, Coolen finds himself bombarded with emails from high school players across the nation.
“It’s not going to change our base,” he insists. “Our base has always been California, local players and Australia. We’ve been successful with what we’ve done in the past and we don’t really want to go and change our foundation because it has worked to this point.”
Nor does he want next season to be much different—he doesn’t want the team to start doing things differently, his assistants to start changing things around or, even worse, players putting too much pressure on themselves.
“The elevation of the fan base is one aspect I hope sustains itself,” Coolen says. “I like seeing the players play in front of a crowd that appreciates the level of excellence on the field and enjoys the game we play.”
The team bid aloha to just five seniors, including Grimes, who headed to graduate school at Boston University. Majam expects a competitive season in 2011.
“It’s going to give our team a lot of confidence. We know we’re a good team and capable of getting to the end and we want to do it again,” she says. “I know I want to get there every year. We have higher expectations now. This legitimized our program.”