Matagiese, Wahine hope to turn things around entering Big West slate

The rebuilding process seems to be headed in the right direction, though the Rainbow Wahine would certainly like to be entering Big West play with a little more momentum. As the University of Hawaii softball team opens its conference slate Friday (vs. UC Riverside, 6 p.m., Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium), the Wahine have lost five of their past seven games and boast a 19-14 overall record on the season. It may be a far cry from recent seasons of glory, but it’s a step in the right direction of regaining some of that prominence.

During the four-year stretch from 2010 through 2013, the Wahine were one of the country’s most exciting and most successful teams. They compiled a record of 176-56, winning at least 44 games in three of those seasons. They were paced by the duo of Kelly Majam and Kauai’s Jessica Iwata, each of whom set numerous individual school records and earned national acclaim.

The 2014 season saw all that experience vanish and the results on the field were foreign to fans who had grown accustomed to the year-in, year-out success under coach Bob Coolen. Hawaii finished last season with a 22-28 record, going 7-14 in the Big West. They struggled at year’s end, losing 12 of their final 15 games. And while home field has become a big advantage for the ‘Bows, they were uncharacteristically bad, going 11-19 in Honolulu.

Having boasted a pair of Kauai High grads for a few years – Iwata and Jori Jasper – Hawaii’s lone Garden Isle representative is now Waimea High School’s Ulu Matagiese. During her freshman season last year, Matagiese showed some pop but also experienced the growing pains most young players struggle with. She finished the season with a .233 batting average, one home run and 13 RBIs in 43 games played.

Through just the out of conference schedule, Matagiese has seen some stronger results. She’s already smacked a pair of home runs and her slugging percentage has risen from last year’s .288 to .418 this season.

She seemed to find her groove towards the end of February. Having started slowly, she went 8 for 20 with two homers and a double over an eight-game stretch, raising her average from .214 to .324. But it has been a tough go ever since with just two hits in her past 21 at-bats.

Not only is the level of competition a step up, but Matagiese is not used to being on the wrong side of the scoreboard very often. She was the most consistent and dominant figure on Waimea’s perennial powerhouse of Lady Menehune squads, helping lead the team to the 2012 HHSAA Division II state championship.

She is part of a promising group of young players and though the more familiar names are no longer in Manoa, the team has its fair share of talent. Matagiese’s fellow sophomores Heather Morales and Sarina Jaramillo are the Wahine’s two leading hitters, providing good reason for optimism that things are heading back to familiar territory.

Conference play is when the stakes are raised and seasons can be made or broken based on those results. Coach Coolen may not have the team to win 40 again, but hitting that 30-mark would mean a better than .500 record in Big West games. It would be a big move for a young team that is already showing growth, maturity and a flair for the dramatic. They’ve had a tough act to follow, but maybe this Wahine club can begin creating its own legacy.

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