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Glory days returning to UH softball?

March 22, 2017

More than basketball, more than football, maybe even more than women’s volleyball, the most exciting team competing for UH Manoa recently has been Wahine softball. In 2010, UH took us on a crazy ride all the way to the College World Series, toppling a touted Alabama squad in the Super Regional before moving on to Oklahoma City.

That team, led by Kelly Majam, Traci Yoshikawa and Kauai High School alumna Jessica Iwata, won 50 games by blasting home runs in every direction. It was like a good old-fashioned Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa compilation, minus the uneasiness and asterisks. It was can’t-miss entertainment with the results to go along with it.

From 2010 to 2013, Hawaii averaged 44 wins per season. But in the past three years, the Wahine have averaged just 26 wins with an overall record of 78-80. It’s been a fairly steep slide for a program that developed such a prestigious national reputation. It’s very possible — and reasonable — that the Iwata era was the anomaly and that we shouldn’t expect those types of results on a yearly basis.

But there has been a shift this season. After a 24-30 record in 2016, Hawaii seems to be hitting its stride. Six straight victories have propelled the Wahine to a 21-10 record entering conference play and some of the old magic seems to be back.

The catalyst has been sophomore Nicole Lopez, who is 10-of-18 with three doubles, two home runs and six RBI’s over the six-game win streak. Her .365 average, seven homers and 21 RBI’s lead the team.

The Oahu native showed signs of this potential during last year’s freshman campaign. Despite the team’s struggles, she led all Wahine in batting (.287), slugging (.448) and RBI’s (21). But her production has seen a drastic uptick this year as the rest of the lineup has thrived beside her.

The recent success has also been aided by Ulu Matagiese’s return to the starting lineup. Since her days playing for the Waimea Lady Menehune, Matagiese has been a mainstay on the UH squad. Though she hasn’t gotten her bat going consistently in 2017, she does have a pair of hits in her past six games, including a two-run homer in a win over Toledo.

Despite just a .143 average to this point, Matagiese doesn’t give up any piece of home plate. In just a very small sample size, she’s come to the plate 27 times and been hit by a pitch on six of those occasions, which leads the team.

Pitchers Dana Thomsen and Brittany Hitchcock are throwbacks to the days of Stephanie Ricketts and Kaia Parnaby, each of whom helped lead UH to its most successful era. Thomsen and Hitchcock have combined for a 1.89 ERA, striking out 181 batters in just over 185 innings.

Unlike the 2010 squad that blasted home runs left and right, this 2017 version has achieved the majority of its success through pitching and defense. That’s actually a more sustainable recipe.

If the bats cooled off for a night, it’s still very likely that UH stays in the game to compete for the win.

Heading into conference play, we’ll get an opporutnity to see how effectively UH has put its recent struggles in the rear view mirror. The Wahine were just 8-13 against Big West opponents last season, but even a slight improvement would have Hawaii back above 30 victories.

They aren’t back to the glory days of 45-50 wins just yet, but this different style is proving successful at the moment.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.