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Wright On: Waracka takes passionate approach as Viks softball coach

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald
    First-year coach Amber Waracka talks to Hilo High softball players during a recent practice at the field behind Chiefess Kapiolani Elementary. Waracka, a former UHH pitcher, and the Vikings are scheduled to open BIIF play Monday at Keaau.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald
    Hilo works on batting at softball practice, but Amber Waracka also noticed all Vikings players were working on parts of their game that needed improvement between practices. “It’s all I can ask,” Waracka said. “I have this massive love, this obsession about this game and I’d like to see that transferred to them in some way."

One of the thankless consequences of the expansion of free trade laws over the last 25 years has been the disappearance of jobs that once kept American families sheltered and fed for generations.

These days, we all know middle-aged people grinding out a living in a mindless job left behind after factories shut down, then traveled to the far ends of the earth for people willing to work for a fraction of what those jobs once paid. Settling, regrettably, for something that helps pay the bills while draining the soul is an ever-increasing reality that steals the pride one might derive from doing a job that inspires their interest and creativity.

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All of which only increases the joy Laurie Waracka feels for her daughter Amber, who, weather permitting, sends out her first softball team in BIIF competition Monday at Keaau.

Her team, at last. She has coached a junior varsity team, coached youth league teams here and there, but this is the first head coaching position she has earned to lead a high school team.

It is difficult to imagine a more desirable coach to revive the spirit of Hilo High School’s softball program. Waracka, the former UH-Hilo player who last competed in 2012, earned a degree in Hawaiian history and then secured a Masters in Arts of Teaching, which seems especially appropriate to her.

“We saw it very early,” said Laurie in a phone interview from Oahu, “we all knew very well what she wanted to do with her life. It never changed.”

The family is very aware of the story that revealed Amber’s passion at an early age. She played as 6-year-old in a beginner’s league, then one day tagged along with her father who was helping coach an All-Star team at practice.

“She saw the pitcher pitch,” Laurie recalled, “and that was it. That’s what she wanted to do, that was set of all she wanted to do.”

That spark of inspiration moved Waracka to research the game. Right away she stumbled into Lisa Fernandez, the dominant UCLA pitcher, who became a first-team All-American three years running, then went on to compete in three Olympics for the USA.

One day Laurie walked into the room and saw her daughter with a notepad, watching softball.

“Yeah,” Amber said, smiling at the memory, “that’s something that happened.

“I just made notes on everything I could see. I changed my number to 16 (Fernandez’ number), I dressed up in a UCLA 16 uniform one time for Halloween and I spent all day explaining who Lisa Fernandez was.

“Got some strange looks.”

She laughed at their lack of knowledge and understanding. She knew what she wanted and how to get it.

In a conversation the other day before practice on the field behind Chiefess Kapiolani Elementary, where she teaches, Waracka expressed her devotion to the sport.

“It’s all I ever wanted,” she said, “I’m not really into sports all that much to be completely honest. Softball is the only sport I like, the only one that felt good to me from the very start.”

Along the way, she learned some things about the game and about how she could find her own role. In the 2008 state championship tournament, she established a record for Kamehameha-Kapalama on the way to a title when she pitched three shutouts and struck out 44 batters in the process, 19 in the first game, 18 in the second and 9 in the third.

She threw a knee-buckling changeup that stymied batters throughout her playing days and her depth of understanding about that phase of the game might end up paying dividends to the program in the months and years ahead.

This is a game, after all is said and done, in which a dominating pitcher can carry a team through season and beyond.

If that occurs, it will likely be down the road a bit. The Vikings practice on a sub-optimal field that had standing water in a couple spots before practice last week. They play home games at Carvalho Park and Walter Victor.

They are homeless in the sense of not having a practice space comparable to others at their schools, while lacking their own home field for games. Also, this team has a few on its 15-player roster who recently got into a game for the first time.

Not a high school game, a game. Waracka scheduled three practice games last month that included a couple players being on the field in competition for the first time.

“It’s good, I love these kids,” Waracka said, “they are eager to try new things and for a few of them, softball itself is a new thing, so we all start off together.”

Where does one put a player who has never played the game?

“I don’t worry about it,” she said. “I’ve been there, it comes in time, the more you play, the better you get.”

That references another story from Laurie, who recalls that, as 7 year-old, Amber wasn’t adept at catching the ball.

“She couldn’t do it,” Laurie said. “She could pitch, but she couldn’t catch so they rolled the ball back out to her after every pitch.”

So when Amber greets players who don’t know the game, it’s no big concern.

“I look to see what kind of skills they already have,” she said. “Can they throw it? Can they catch it? Are they fast? Some of them hold a bat and it’s awkward for them, others pick it up and go right after it.

“There are always things you can build on, and that’s the great thing about these guys.”

The Big Island softball environment at this level isn’t comparable to what she knew growing up on Oahu, where teams play year-round, there are summer leagues, tournaments and a lot more competition.

“That’s all true,” Waracka said, “but one thing we have going here is that fundamentals are preached pretty well, the ones who have played have a good understanding and a good base to build on, I’ve seen that already.”

In the three practice games last month, she saw improvement in every game.

“I was actually pretty surprised,” she said. “The ones who hadn’t played before? They did things well in the second game that they didn’t do in the first and they did more things well in the third game.

“I just wanted to see what kind of group we had, and it was encouraging, everyone got better, game-by-game.”

That was a month ago, but she is already seeing a carryover effect. Waracka noticed all players were working on parts of their game that needed improvement between practices.

“That’s really important,” she said, “because it shows they want to get better and they know how to work on their games.

“It’s all I can ask. I have this massive love, this obsession about this game and I’d like to see that transferred to them in some way. When they improve in small little ways — positioning your feet to throw the ball, whatever it is — those little victories build confidence and makes you want to learn more, so if I can keep the enthusiasm going, I’ll be happy.”

Clearly, she is already happy.

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The passion overflows when people get to do exactly what they have always wanted to do and for Amber Waracka, it all just keeps getting better.

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