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Rainbow Wahine softball opens season in Las Vegas

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The chase is officially on within the Coolen household.

When Grace College, an NAIA program in Indiana, picked up its first win of the season in late January, first-year co-head coach Bo Coolen put in a call to his father back home in Manoa.

“After his first win he said, ‘Just 1,094 more to go and I’ll catch you,’ ” said Bob Coolen, who opens his 31st season leading the University of Hawaii softball team today.

The younger Coolen — who shares coaching duties with his wife, Sam — actually has even a bit more ground to cover with Bob Coolen entering the 2022 Rainbow Wahine schedule at 1,099 career wins (and counting), including his five years at Bentley College.

Along with reveling in win No. 1 for his son and daughter-in-law, the excitement and anticipation for a season opener remains as fresh for Bob Coolen as it was when he took over the UH program in 1992.

“In the fall I had butterflies when we were going to play our first game in the Paradise Classic,” Coolen said of the exhibition series in November. “If I don’t get the butterflies, if I don’t put myself in that position, then I know it’s time to hang it up.

“(The players are) all excited, they’re all nervous, they’re all taking deep breaths, they’re panting a little bit in the batter’s box because they’re so hyped to play, and once I lose that I’ll be done. I’ll walk away into the sunset.”

That sunset remains off in the distance as Coolen — who enters the season with a 1,027-645-1 record over three decades at UH — leads the Rainbow Wahine into a doubleheader today at the Rebel Kickoff in Las Vegas.

UH will face longtime rival BYU at 9:30 a.m. at Eller Media Stadium and take on host UNLV at 2:30 p.m. The Wahine will have the same schedule on Saturday and cap the opening weekend against fellow Big West member CSU Bakersfield on Sunday.

The return to Las Vegas, previously an annual early-season trip, is another indication of a return to normalcy following last year’s schedule that was limited to one nonconference series with Washington followed by the Big West season.

UH went 12-19 overall and 11-13 in Big West play last year and returns seven position starters to go along with a young pitching staff of two freshmen and a senior.

Jetta Nannen, who had a team-high 17 starts last season, transferred to Colorado State after the fall semester, leaving senior Ashley Murphy as the lone returning pitcher. She’s joined by right-hander Chloe Borges and lefty Brianna Lopez, who “bring with them the freshman tenacity to take the mound and get it going,” Coolen said.

“They’ve grown a lot since they’ve been here,” senior shortstop Nawai Kaupe said of the newcomers. “I’m excited to see what they can bring in the preseason.”

Coolen said Borges will also hit for herself when she starts in the circle.

“She can just hit the cover off the ball, and I don’t want to take that way from her because I call her my bulldog both on the mound and at the plate,” Coolen said.

Kaupe led UH with six home runs and 22 runs batted in last season and is slated to hit third in an experienced top half of the batting order. Center fielder Brittnee Rossi hit .330 last year and is back for her fifth year in the leadoff spot, followed by second baseman Maya Nakamura (.299, seven doubles in 2021).

The trio earned All-Big West second-team honors last year and also anchor the UH defense up the middle.

“We have strong communication skills up the middle and I think that we can win defensively if we keep that hammah-ness up the middle,” Kaupe said.

Junior first baseman Dallas Millwood returns in the cleanup spot in the order. Junior Princess Matavao, sophomore Rachel “Bueller” Sabourin and freshman Casey Beaulac are competing for the third-base spot vacated by Cheeks Ramos.

Coolen said senior right fielder Mikaela Gandia-Mak has been the team’s most consistent hitter in practice. Sophomores Mya’Liah Bethea and Ka‘ena Keliinoi are among five catchers on the roster and will also play left field. Senior Kaeli Bush and freshmen Izabella Martinez and Haley Johnson could also see time behind the plate.

Coolen said some members of the program have dealt with COVID-19, which has already tested the team’s resilience.

”The players understand that we have to stay safe, stay diligent, stay aware and not put ourselves in harm’s way in regards to anything we do outside of the program,” Coolen said. “They’re very much aware of what they need to do.”

Source: Star

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