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Softball: Powered by pitching, Vuls look to continue surge on Oahu

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald UH-Hilo outfielder Kamalei Labasan fields a ball during the Vulcans’ only game this season against Hawaii Pacific, a 6-1 win.

In her first start of the season, UH-Hilo ace Valerie Alvarado produced four double plays to waltz to a 6-1 win over Hawaii Pacific at the Walter Victor complex, showing the ability to extinguish an opponent’s spark before it turns into a fire.

The senior right-hander walked two hitters and gave up two singles, but all those base runners were eliminated by double plays, also known as a pitcher’s best friend. One pitch equals two outs. What’s better than that?

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Well, Alvarado, from La Miranda, Calif., is on a dominant run. She’s 2-0 with a 0.30 ERA in 23 innings. She’s allowed 13 hits and 13 walks with just six strikeouts. Alvarado neutralizes trouble with her drop ball, which is baseball’s equivalent to a sinker.

The Sharks (0-7 PacWest) get a rematch against the Vulcans (5-0) starting with a noon doubleheader Saturday and Sunday at Howard Okita field in Kaneohe, Oahu.

Sara Bhatt, a freshman from Murrieta, Calif., has been even better at 3-0 with no runs allowed in 9 1/3 innings. The 5-foot-9 right-hander is the staff’s hardest thrower with a fastball in the 62 to 63 mph range, which translates to an 87-89 mph fastball.

UHH coach Callen Perreira pointed out that his two top pitchers rely on different styles but get the same result.

“Val moves the ball, up and down, in and out. She’s got a nice changeup to complements a nice riseball. Her key pitch is the drop ball, and she’s got a great screwball, too,” he said. “She knows how to pitch to contact.

“Sara has a really good riseball. She throws that obviously when ahead in the count because it’s a ball. She’s got a screwball and curve-drop. She throws 62, 63 mph and that’s good especially for Division II. She’s going to be a mainstay for years to come.”

The other senior-freshman duo is Leah Gonzales, who has yet to make an appearance, and Malia Risdall (0-0, 5.25 in 2 2/3 innings). They offer depth and different looks to opponents HPU and Chaminade.

With 25 years of coaching experience, Perreira has a vast network of recruiting contacts, and his appeal to parents is the way he treats his players.

“A lot of them knows we take of our girls on and off the field,” he said. “We do that and the parents call to check up on them. We have the aloha spirit. It’s a network and how you treat the kids, and winning helps a lot, too.”

The Vulcans are undefeated and feeling good about themselves. The players are aware that playing HPU and Chaminade so many times requires constant adjustments. It’s never a good thing when pitching patterns become too familiar.

“It feels great to be 5-0. It gives the team a lot of confidence,” Perreira said. “Playing each other 12 games each, we get to know each other. You have to make adjustments, and we talk before the game and make in-game adjustments all the time. You have to aware of it and willing to make adjustments.”

It’s no surprise that Markie Okamoto (.533 batting average), Chloe Domingo (.429), Vevesi Liilii (.389), and Darian Obara (.286) are the leading hitters.

“They live on Oahu and get together, and their hard work shows,” Perreira said. “They’ve worked at it.”

Okamoto, a catcher, played at Mililani, Domingo, and Obara, both infielders, played at Campbell and Pearl City, respectively, and Liilii, an outfielder, played at Iolani, all rival schools, and they’re on the same team.

Sooner or later, Alvarado will leave the program, and Bhatt will step in to fill her shoes. For the offense, Liilii is the main power source. She leads in RBIs with eight and shares a .667 slugging percentage with Okamoto.

Vevesi is also a senior and eligible to retain her class standing in 2022 under the NCAA’s coronavirus status. But she’ll leave one day, too, and sophomore Nikki Zielinski will fill her shoes as the top slugger.

The transfer from College of Southern Idaho hit .447 with 13 home runs in just 20 games in 2020 and batted .365 with 13 homers as a freshman. But Division II pitching is a step up from Juco ball, and the 5-7 Zielinski is off to a slow start. She’s hitting .182 in 11 at-bats.

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“She’s certainly capable. She’s pressing. She wants to be a big part of the team, which she is,” Perreira said. “She works hard and is very strong. She’ll get there. She works extra hard outside of practice. She’s very talented. She’s pressing hard being on a new team.”

She just needs to follow her coach’s advice to relax and enjoy the ride. There’s a lot of room on the bus as the Vulcans go bowling over opponents on their unbeaten run.

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