Speak softly and carry a BIG STICK

HONOLULU — In the bottom of the 10th inning against top-ranked California last week, Jessica Iwata came to the plate looking for the change-up.

In her previous three at-bats, the Kaua‘i High School graduate was bested by Cal’s ace, Jolene Henderson. As Iwata walked up to the plate, she focused on being patient. She spent the offseason dedicated to working counts and patience. She knew, digging into the batter’s box with the game on the line, this was a chance for her newfound skill to pay off.

“I went up there knowing I was struggling in the earlier at-bats,” Iwata said. “She had gotten me with the change and I knew she might go back to it. So I waited for it.”

Iwata quickly fell behind in the count and faced a one-ball, two-strike pitch before she finally saw it. The change up. Iwata’s eyes widened as she recognized what was coming and unleashed her textbook right-handed swing, propelling the ball over the left field fence for the walk-off two-run homer.

The 3-1 win ended the Golden Bears’ 23-game winning streak and  gave the Rainbow Wahine their first win over a No. 1 team in five years. More importantly, Iwata said, it provided the Rainbow Wahine the confidence, heading into tonight’s Western Athletic Conference season opener, that the Hawai‘i girls can beat anyone.

“We knew we could play with them, but we didn’t quite believe it 100 percent,” the junior said. “Knowing that we have that under our belt, now we can be like, ‘You know guys, we can play at that level and beat anyone.’”

If the Rainbow Wahine plan on making a run into the postseason this year, Iwata will once again play a crucial roll.

Following a record-setting freshman year wherein she batted .367 with 18 homeruns, 58 runs batted in and a conference  record 21 doubles, Iwata technically regressed in her sophomore campaign. That is, if a stat line of .355, 15 HR, 44 RBI and a second consecutive WAC player of the year award is deemed regression.

And despite her so-called sophomore slump, Iwata is putting up eye-popping numbers so far in 2012.

Through the Rainbow Wahine preseason slate, which included a UH record 21-game winning streak to start to the season, Iwata is on pace to shatter her previous season highs. Heading into tonight’s WAC opener against San Jose State, Iwata is batting .413. Just a third of the way into the year, Iwata already has racked up 30 RBI, 5 HR and her seven doubles have eclipsed last season’s total of five.

Iwata attributes her early-season numbers to a new approach at the plate. She said she used to be impatient, often times swinging at the first pitch. That tendency won’t go unnoticed by the rest of the conference, especially when it’s coming from a player of Iwata’s caliber, UH head coach Bob Coolen said.

Pitchers would try and get Iwata to chase early pitches, Coolen said, but with her new approach, the advantage has returned to Iwata — not that she ever really lost it.

“With her being more patient at the plate she’s turned into a more formidable batter to deal with,” Coolen said. “With her being our No. 4 hitter, you can’t be chasing bad pitches. If you do, you won’t be doing what she’s doing, like hitting those walk-off homeruns.”

In addition to Iwata’s new strategy at the plate, 2012 has seen her emerge as a team leader. The soft-spoken Iwata isn’t the “proverbial ra-ra” leader, Coolen said. Instead, with seniors that take up the spoken leadership, Iwata leads with her play. Coolen said Iwata is one of his best practice players. In practice she’ll hit every ball Coolen throws at her, routinely knocking 10 to 15 of Coolen’s pitches over the fence, he said.

“She has such a pretty swing and the strength behind it,” Coolen said. “She has the mentality of ‘I’m going to go out there and perform, make the plays I need to make and hit the way I have my whole life.’”

With her hot start and another year left of eligibility, Iwata will most likely leave UH with her name firmly planted in the Rainbow Wahine record book. She’s six homeruns shy of Kate Robinson’s team record 44. Her 132 RBI are closing in on Tyleen Tausaga’s record 156 and trails Tia Morenz’s record .377 career batting average by seven points. Iwata could conceivably finish with team records in runs scored and walks before she finishes her career as well. Chances are, however, Iwata doesn’t know — or care — what her numbers are.

“I don’t really set goals,” she said. “I like to take the task at hand and get it done.”

Iwata said she isn’t concerned about numbers, or the added pressure they bring, because she already pushes herself hard enough. Coolen agreed.

“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what her numbers are,” the coach said. “Each year the team is different. This isn’t like a pro team where you’re looking at career numbers. They’re playing here for four years. If a freshman puts up good numbers you hope that’s what you get for four years. That’s what we’ve got.”

Iwata and the Rainbow Wahine (24-2) enter the WAC season with sky-high expectations. Iwata said she want to finish the season as conference champions — Hawai‘i’s last chance to etch its name onto the WAC trophy again before changing conferences next season. The pressure will be on the 17th ranked Rainbow Wahine, but Iwata said that just like she’s done at the plate this year, she and the Wahine will take the season one game — and pitch — at a time.

• Tyson Alger, sports writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 237) or by emailing talger@ thegardenisland.com. Follow him on twitter.com/tysonalger.

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