Melanie Hipwell left her hometown, of La Mesa, Calif., to play for the UH-Hilo softball team more than two decades ago, not knowing anyone or much about the Aloha spirit.
She returned home a changed person, impacted by the Hilo community and filled the UHH record books in her four years from 1997 to 2000.
Hipwell was a sweet-swinging left-handed hitting catcher who established seven long-standing career records for games played (203), at-bats (628), hits (223), RBIs (146), doubles (37), walks (79) and fielding percentage (.976). She ranked second in triples (12) and third in batting average (.371).
In the Curious case of where are they now?, Hipwell is now Melanie Brandt and lives in the same area, San Diego, and works for the same school district in education.
The year 2010 was significant for her. She was inducted into UHH’s Hall of Fame in September and married Travas Brandt, an electrician, in November. (She jokes he may be the only one who spells his name that way.)
Their daughter, Clare, is 8 years old and as soon as she could pick up a bat was taught to hit left-handed. She was blessed with good hand-eye coordination because her father played hockey in high school.
It’s a family affair for Clare’s 8-and-under softball team. Mom is the manager, dad is a coach, and Melanie’s mom, Antoinette, is an assistant. Like her parents, Brandt is raising her daughter much the same way. She isn’t force-feeding Clare to play softball.
“She’s still young and we don’t want her to burn out,” Brandt said. “We allow her to play soccer, do theater, art, different things. We want to find out what she enjoys. She enjoys the friendships from softball. She’s an only child and has made great little friends.
“We want to support her, like my parents did for me. My dad comes to all the games and my mom is in the dugout. I’ve taken everything they’ve given me and give back to my child and community.”
During her time at UHH, the Vulcans always had winning records but never qualified for the postseason. Hawaii Pacific ruled the landscape, but what Brandt remembers is the connections formed during her time.
“Everybody got along. We had a good group of girls and good families,” she said. “Michelle Canchola and I were freshmen roommates and a battery for four years. We talk on the phone and reminisce. Those were the best days of our lives, our years in Hilo.
“There was always the Aloha spirit, be kind to others. That was the golden rule. I didn’t know anyone but everyone became an uncle or aunty to me. It was life-changing, and I’m grateful to coach Callen Perreira for what he did for me and my family.”
Whenever the Vulcans play in San Diego, Brandt makes it a point to watch her old team. One of the highlights for her was when Perreira and assistant Fred Entilla attended her wedding.
Brandt picked up a lot of her coaching cues from Perreira, who remembers his catcher fondly.
“She had the sweetest swing I’ve seen in all my years of coaching,” he said. “Beautiful swing, great kid, very respectful, worked hard and great all-around person. We still keep in touch as well as her mom and dad. They appreciated the Hawaiian culture and how we took care of the student-athletes.”
That’s what Brandt remembers most: How she was treated.
“He took good care of us,” she said. “If we needed anything because we were so far away from our families.
“He was very organized with practice. He taught me how to be organized. I plan everything on a clipboard. He supported us and never yelled. If we made a mistake, learn from it. There was always a good vibe because we had good people.”
Her family is practicing softball, with safety precautions in mind, but do other things as well. They enjoy camping and the beach. There wasn’t a Women’s College World Series this year, but in years past Brandt claimed the remote and turned into a catcher, calling pitches.
Hilo was more than an old college town for her. It never leaves her mind. The memories of her good times still live on. It’s not a far stretch to state that a return trip is possible someday. Melanie and Travas don’t have anchor jobs.
Who knows? In a decade, Clare will be old enough to go to college. Maybe UHH, playing for her mom’s old coach?
“I love what I do, but Hawaii is always on my mind. Every day I think about Hawaii,” she said. “I think about the people and friendships made. How welcoming everybody was. I’m very thankful for all the love and support I felt instantly. Hilo is always in my heart.”