Regionals or bust? UHH softball chases elusive postseason berth

  • RICK OGATA photo UH-Hilo junior shortstop is adept with the bat, whether it be smallball or swinging away. In 2019, Lincoln led the Vulcans with a .333 batting average, 36 runs scored, 54 hits, two triples and five home runs in earning second team All-PacWest honors.

Softball is one of the last programs at UH-Hilo you’d figure would need a culture change, but coach Callen Perreira doesn’t want his players to get too stuck in their winning ways.

Heading into this season, the Vulcans are focusing on the “R” word, and this has nothing to do with respect. UHH has that, evidenced by the fact the Pacific West Conference coaches forested a runner-up finish for the Vuls last week.

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“We’re trying to be as relentless as we can,” Perreira said. “I’ve been pounding that into them all fall and spring.”

The winningest coach in program history even gave a class on the subject, though Relentless 101 was taught out of a book.

“He says it quite often and it gets in your head,” senior outfielder Mai Kaleikini said. “Give everything you’ve got, every chance you have, no matter during practice, or during games, then when it comes time for big situations, you have nothing but the best to give.”

Junior shortstop Kiarra Lincoln probably could have skipped Perreira’s class – the 5-foot dynamo has been relentless ever since her first game of her freshman season of high school at Kamehameha-Hawaii.

“Coach always reminds us,” she said, “remember why you’re here.”

In a word, it’s winning, something the program is quite good at – to a point – winning 30 of more games four of the past five seasons and finishing above .500 in 31 of the past 33 campaign. Last season, UHH finished second in the PacWest behind Concordia, narrowly missing out on its first trip to regionals since 2013.

“Regionals is our team goal, we talk about it a lot,” Kaleikini said.

Reminded that the easiest path to the postseason is through winning the PacWest, Kaleikini said, “Yes, it is.

“Concordia is at the top of our list. We’re going to go out with a bang this year.”

The league schedule is favorable, with Concordia – the unanimous preseason team to beat – Azusa Pacific and Biola all coming to Hilo during the first homestand of the season.

Perreira said he’ll use a “committee” with his pitching staff after would-be ace Brianna Wheeler took an “unexpected” redshirt, and Rayla Jacobs-Kea, the only Vul other than Kaleikini to make preseason all-PacWest, left the team for “personal” reasons.

Despite those two losses, Perreira said, “We can compete, we’re going to be right there.”

Rather than riding an ace, UHH will rely on three seniors right-handers:

• Valerie Alvarado, the No. 2 who went 10-5 last year with a 3.12 ERA;

• Leah Gonzales, who made 17 appearances last year, most of those out of the bullpen, compiling a 1.89 ERA and 6-5 record; she’ll see her role expand this season;

• and Billi Derleth, who worked around injuries last year to go 3-3 record with a 2.07 ERA.

Once Wheeler was ruled out this season, Perreira determined that senior right-fielder Vevesi Liilii could help out in the circle, and freshman Malia Risdall also could work her way into the rotation.

“Valerie throws the hardest, Leah mixes it up, Vevesi throws hard, Billi will mix it up and Malia is in the middle as far as fastest and movement.”

There may be a lot to juggle there, but one of Perreira’s easiest tasks is penciling Lincoln into the top of the lineup and watching her go. He considers her as good as any shortstop in the West.

“I like to lead by example,” said Lincoln, a second-team all-PacWest selection in 2019 after leading the Vuls in average (.333), home runs (five) and RBIs (34), “and my work ethic can hopefully motivate other players.

“It was weird for me to be a leader of people who were older than me,” she said of a role she also played in high school. “But as I go through the years, you realize it doesn’t matter because you can motivate people in other ways.”

Another table-setter is senior center fielder Kimberly Olivas, who spent most of last season injured but started 10 games and hit .321, while Kaleikini, Liilii (.298, four home runs, 16 RBIs in 2019) and junior catcher Markie Okamoto (.267, three homer, 24 RBIs) will hold down the heart of the order.

Junior Skylar Thomas, a Waiakea alum, tied for the team-high with five homers last season, and freshman Megan Johnson also is pushing for playing time, either at first base or catcher.

Another freshman to watch is Kenzie Fox, who is vying for playing time at second base along with sophomore Darian Obara, who is coming off of a redshirt season.

Chloe Domingo returns at third. The sophomore hit .246 in 2019 but carried the highest on-base percentage (.459) on the team.

The third former BIIF player on the roster is Waiakea alum Brandee Chinen, a sophomore who started 12 games at second base and scored 12 runs.

“Our team this year is more well-rounded,” Lincoln said. “We have more players that can fill every position. When we get on the field we just have to pull it together.”

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No person better personifies the Vulcans’ relentless pursuit than Kaleikini, who admits she struggled in what was supposed to be a banner season. The 2019 PacWest preseason player of the year struck out 31 times in 122 at-bats, hitting .279 with two homers and 14 RBIs. As a sophomore, the Honolulu native went for .361, six and 39 in those three categories.

“There was a lot to learn and a lot to gain from,” she said. “I’ve turned the page completely, and I want to come into this season with a clean slate. I’m determined to get better and hopefully that can help put us over the top.”

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