Wes Nakama: Hope springs eternal for UH sports
HONOLULU — Talk of financial gloom has cast a dark shadow over the University of Hawaii athletic program recently, with discussion even reaching the point of questioning NCAA Division I football status in the long-term future.
But as 2013 quickly turns into 2014, a look at the overall department’s immediate future actually portends brighter days ahead, at least in terms of year-over-year improvement for most winter and spring sports.
Let us count the ways:
The Rainbow Warriors are 10-3, matching the best start in head coach Gib Arnold’s four-year tenure, and broke through the Top 100 barrier in the Ratings Percentage Index for the first time in recent memory.
Barring injury, Hawaii appears certain to better its sixth-place prediction by the Big West Conference media, and in fact expects to challenge for the league title. A 10-6 Big West record and advancement to the conference tournament semifinals seem more than reasonable targets, and that would put the Warriors at or near 20 victories.
If their RPI remains above 100, that combination would seem to warrant a National Invitation Tournament bid.
Of course, Arnold and his players have higher aspirations, but a 20-win season and NIT appearance would be milestone achievements for the program and represent continued progress under Arnold.
The Rainbow Wahine are 6-6, including a dramatic victory over Minnesota.
It would take quick and sudden improvement to better last year’s 13-5 Big West record, but they are predicted by league media to finish second, so a 12-4 finish and advancement to the conference tournament semifinals is not an unreasonable goal.
Neither is a second straight WNIT berth, and perhaps a first-round victory this time.
The Rainbow Warriors return five starters and 10 lettermen from a team that nearly upset top-seeded Brigham Young in last year’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoffs.
UH is ranked No. 13 — same as its finish last year — in the AVCA preseason poll and predicted to place ninth in the MPSF. But the amount of returning starters and a deep bench, plus the addition of reputed assistant coach Milan Zarkovic, would seem to indicate potential for a more successful season.
It would be asking a lot to improve on last year’s 45-13 record, including a 20-4 finish in the Big West, especially considering the loss of All-America quality players like pitcher Kaia Parnaby, center fielder Kelly Majam and shortstop Jessica Iwata.
But there is reason to hope for more than just a rebuilding year, beginning with the return of outfielder Keiki Carlos, first baseman Leisha Liilii, catcher/designated hitter Kayla Wartner, second baseman Jasmine Zamora and utility player Sharla Kleibenstein.
The key, of course, will be if and how well freshmen pitchers Brittany Hitchcock and Heather Morales can make an immediate impact to help returnees Loie Kesterson and Carlos fill the enormous void left by Parnaby.
Nothing seemed to go right in 2013, when the Rainbow Warriors suffered numerous injuries and finished a disappointing 16-35, including 11-17 (seventh) in the Big West.
But there is a solid corps of returnees that give promise to a much-improved 2014, starting with junior pitcher Jarrett Arakawa, who missed the entire season after going 7-6 with a 2.88 earned run average in 2012. He joins fellow junior lefties Scott Squier and Lawrence Chew and senior right-hander Matt Cooper to form a solid nucleus on the mound. Newcomers Andrew Jones and Waiakea product Quintin Torres-Costa barely got to show their potential before suffering season-ending injuries, and it remains to be seen if and how they recover.
The batting lineup and defense returns several veterans including outfielders Kaeo Aliviado, Conner George and Kalei Hanawahine, plus slick shortstop Austin Wobrock, first baseman Marc Flores and catcher/designated hitter Trevor Podratz.
They will need to hit more consistently and for more power than last year, but with a healthy pitching staff, there may not be as much pressure to score a lot of runs.
One key for all of these sports — except for softball, which does not charge admission — is to be competitive and provide an entertaining product for fans.
Because ultimately, the discussion will eventually circle back to finances. So if these other sports can boost their attendance and help pick up the slack from football’s poor performance, it will help the overall UH athletic program become somewhat sustainable for the short-term future.
Reach Wes Nakama at email@example.com.