LIHUE — University of Hawaii and Kauai High School alumna Jessica Iwata is a pioneer of sorts.
Growing up, she played baseball instead of softball. In fact, she’s one of a very select few girls to play with the men of the Americans of Japanese Ancestry baseball league on Kauai — when she was an eighth grader.
After winning four Kauai Interscholastic Federation softball titles and one Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II state title with the Red Raiders, she went on to start all but three games in a four-year career at UH.
At Manoa, she was among the team leaders in most offensive categories. In addition, she put her name in the UH record books, setting a school record for most career RBIs with 197. She also broke the UH record for most RBIs in a single game with eight in 2010.
After graduating with her degree in business management in December, she returned to Kauai, not only to reunite with family and friends, but to share her experience with young, aspiring softball players from her home island.
Despite all the accolades she’s earned, she’s never let her accomplishments get to her head. Or the pressure of playing big time ball. She’s still the humble, soft-spoken girl she’s always been.
“I never lost myself in any of it,” she said.
Iwata sat down with The Garden Island in her home in Lihue and talked about her experiences playing baseball and softball growing up, playing at UH and what could be in store for her future.
The Garden Island: I was there the first day of your softball clinic at Isenberg Park last Saturday. How was the second day?
Jessica Iwata: It went pretty well. I spoke to (UH teammates Stephane Ricketts and Kelly Majam-Elms) about it. We did one on Oahu, and we mentioned that out of the four clinics that we held, the one on Sunday was one of the better ones. I don’t know if it’s because of the athletes that we have here in high school, they already know what they were doing. But we all thought together that we had the most fun with that last group.
The funny part is that we only have three schools on the island. Kelly and Steph, they don’t know how that is because they’re from California. What happened was that they didn’t realize how the three different schools play a big role. So it was like a sea of red that showed up, a sea of green and a sea of blue. I know how that goes, you know? So as soon as we started warming up, Kelly goes in and separates all of them. We ended up mixing all of the high school girls. It’s not like they hate each other or anything, but that’s how it is. There are only three schools. I thought that was pretty funny.
TGI: I’ve heard while you were growing up, you didn’t really care for softball. I heard you preferred playing baseball. Why?
JI: When I graduated high school, my mom found this video of me when I graduated preschool. I was 4 years old. You know how your teacher asks you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and your friends say doctor, policeman, stuff like that? I told everybody that I wanted to be a baseball player.
So when I was 5, I started playing tee ball, then I played baseball. I played baseball from when I was 5 until I was in high school. That was the sport that I liked to do. I grew up with two brothers, so I was always around boys. My cousins around my age are boys, mostly.
I just enjoyed (baseball). I played a ton of sports growing up. I played, soccer, basketball and volleyball. I bowled and I ran track. I played everything you could think of. In high school, I lettered in eight different sports.
When I got to high school, I realized I couldn’t do baseball anymore. Eventually, I had to do softball.
What originally started this was while I was growing up playing baseball, we didn’t have softball. Outside of high school, we didn’t have club teams. You know how the girls showed up to our clinic? (When I was their age), we barely had anyone to make a team. We couldn’t make one or two teams. There wasn’t softball. Softball was just some sport on the side. Most of the girls who played softball in high school either never really played before or they played baseball growing up.
That was my main goal. When I was growing up, I wanted to come back and make sure that they had that. When I went away to play in college and come back during breaks, I would see how much it grew and how many more girls wanted to play softball. That’s something, I guess, I can be prideful about. I opened up that door for them. You can play different sports when you’re growing up, but softball can get you far. It turned out to be one of my passions and I got to play (Division I college).
TGI: Are there differences between playing baseball and softball? Or are the concepts the same?
JI: It’s the same concept. I didn’t have too much trouble switching over from baseball to softball. Just the fact that the ball was coming at a different angle, that’s the biggest thing. The transition was OK. I didn’t think it was too bad. The concepts are all the same, just the field is smaller and the balls are bigger. For the most part, I don’t think I had trouble switching over.
TGI: I read that you played in AJA when you were in eighth grade. What was that like?
JI: Back then, I was just all about baseball and it was just what I wanted to do. I just went out to try. Actually, you play for where you live, right? I live in Lihue. The Lihue coach didn’t want me to play on their team. I ended up playing for Kalaheo. My mom knew the coach or something like that. The guys all knew me. And we ended up winning that year. We won and I traveled with them to Oahu for the state tournament.
There were a couple of guys that were my friends, guys that were my age that I played with. So I was more comfortable playing with them there instead of just all older guys. It wasn’t really a big deal for me until they started telling me that girls never played and stuff like that. But I was always the only girl. I was playing baseball and I was always the only girl on the team.
TGI: So in high school, you and your team won four KIF titles and one D-2 state title. Why was Kauai High so good for those years?
JI: Our class had a pretty good group of athletes. We had a good senior class that year and it was something we were working up to since I got there. It’s something you always want to work up to. You always want to be at the top. (My junior year), coming up short in the last game sucks. So our last year it was like, ‘This is our last chance. We had to do it now or it’s never going to happen.’ That was our mentality. It was really cool because we played up at UH. The final game was on TV at UH and I knew that was going to be the field that I was going to be playing at. I actually got the hit that scored the one run in that game. (UH coach Bob Coolen) was up at the top. I can still picture him at the top watching from the box. I was super nervous.
TGI: Then you got to play at UH. How was that?
JI: My freshman year, I think it was one of my better years just because I was straight out of high school. I didn’t know what to expect. Nobody knew me. I was just a freshman that played. I didn’t have so many expectations as I did the following years. I was just glad to be there. I wanted to just play the game.
TGI: So now that you’ve graduated, what are your plans in the future? You said you plan on going back to Oahu?
JI: Well, I’m supposed to go back to Oahu in a couple of weeks. The plan was that I was just going to come home for the summer.
I have a friend who pitched at UH. She’s from Australia. She’s playing in Japan right now. She said she knows contacts in Australia. If she can find me a team there, I might go to Australia. Or I’m trying to get contacts into Italy. It’s a really big step for me. It’s not set yet, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.
I’m trying to figure stuff out, but like to go with the flow. Whatever happens happens. Wherever I end up, I’ll figure it out when I get there. I’m not the type where everything has to be planned. That’s just how Kauai is. That’s how I was brought up.
TGI: For young softball players who aspire to play college ball, what advice do you give them?
JI: A lot of it is balance. Balancing your time with schoolwork and sports. It’s a matter of how they do it. Everything comes together. We try to explain to them that education comes first. Without that, you can’t play softball anyway.
With Steph, Kelly and I, when we do clinics, we really put that into their heads. We’ve been through it. They look up to us, so maybe they’ll listen. It’s easier for me because I’ve been through it.
I know what it’s like growing up on Kauai. At the time, I probably did the same thing. I try to explain to them that they can do anything they want to do.
(Don’t limit yourself) just because we’re from Kauai and we don’t have as much opportunities as other people. Make your own opportunities.