By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
As one of two holdovers from a bygone era of University of Hawaii at Hilo softball, Asha Prithviraj fields the question all the time.
“The freshmen keep asking, and it’s so funny. They’re like, ‘What is it like to be in the postseason?’” Prithviraj said. “It’s cool.
“I tell them when you’re playing college ball, it’s definitely something you’d want to experience at least once.”
Prithviraj and catcher Brittany Spencer, the Lady Vulcans’ two seniors, are intent on feeling that taste a second time.
“The goal that we just made was to make it to postseason,” Spencer said, “and I think we can make it to postseason.”
Coach Jaime Wallin’s first two teams showed promise at times and ultimately finished with winning records, but midseason slumps cost UHH a chance at the playoffs in both seasons.
Prithviraj and Spencer have been around the block at UHH. They’re the only remaining members of former coach Callen Perreira’s last recruiting class. They were on a UHH team that lost to eventual national champion Hawaii Pacific at regionals in 2010, then Wallin took over a season later.
“Our sophomore year, it was more (Coach Wallin) trying to feel us out, because it was a team that was Coach Callen’s team,” said Prithviraj, a gap hitter at first base who is looking to bring back the smooth swing she enjoyed as a sophomore. “Now, this is definitely (Coach Wallin’s) team.”
To bridge the experience gap, Wallin added six junior college transfers who are expected to make an immediate impact and five freshmen to bolster a roster that she feels is deep and talented, particularly in the outfield.
“I feel very comfortable saying Nos. 4-5-6 in the outfield can come in and be capable of playing for any team in the Pacific West Conference,” Wallin said. “We have a really deep lineup.”
The centerpiece of the order will be sophomore third baseman Emily Greene, who’s slimmed down this year as she tries to improve upon a breakout freshman season in which she finished second on the team with a .320 average, five home runs and 30 RBIs.
However, no other returnee on the roster hit above .300 or hit more than one home run for last season.
“To her credit, she lost about 25 pounds this year,” Wallin said. “Her swing looks really good. She’s been running; she’s been hitting on a regular basis. I think she’s poised to have an even better year than as a freshman.
“For her, she’s putting a little extra pressure on herself, because she is the only returner who had as much success.”
In the circle, Wallin feels sophomore left-hander Ashley Nelson’s unflappable nature makes her a natural to take over as staff ace.
Nelson started strong out of the gate with three wins and a save in UHH’s opening series. But after winning her first four decisions¸ she got hurt midseason and finished 6-4 with a 3.01 ERA.
She pitched just under 60 innings, but with Amber Waracka (138 1/3) and Jessica Pepin (94) gone, the workload will undoubtedly go up.
“I know that I’m going to be in there more than I was last year, and I’m prepared for it,” she said.
If her wide array of pitches isn’t enough to keep hitters off-balance, than her unorthodox, seemingly no-look delivery might.
“It’s really deceiving from how it looks,” Nelson said. “It looks like I’m looking down the whole time. But I look up right before (I pitch). It’s not like I’m blind pitching or anything.”
UHH has been practicing on and off since just after Labor Day, so they’re chomping at the bit to get going. And they’ll be no fretting about Hilo’s unpredictable weather this time. The Vulcans start their 56-game season, the NCAA maximum, today at their inaugural Kona Kickoff Classic at Old Kona Airport Park with games against St. Mary’s and BYU-Hawaii.
Another change for this season is that Wallin’s trimmed back her travel squad to try and raise the competitive level. UHH carries a roster of 22, but she estimates about 18 will dress for home games and 14-15 on the road.
Her message is clear: If you want to play, practice hard.
The Vulcans lost five seniors, including middle infielders Aisha Sueda and Nicole Alconcel. Sueda led the team in most offensive categories.
Spencer said the reinforcements are ready to pick up the slack, at least with the bats.
“I think we have a lot more potential offensively at this point to last year,” said Spencer, who feels like she’s primed to hit .300 this season after batting .259 in 2012. “Our defense isn’t as strong. (Alconcel and Sueda) left big shoes to be filled.”
Wallin is confident that she has suitable replacements, though, in freshman second baseman Brittany Huff and junior shortstop Rebecca Lee.
Wallin considers Huff the team’s most reliable middle infielder, while Lee is originally from Oahu but transferred from Division I East Carolina and is also capable of playing outfield and catcher.
“(Lee) still has to get a little bit more comfortable at short,” Wallin said. “But she makes the routine plays, and she makes the great plays.”
The team strength could be depth in the outfield.
Kristina Victa, formerly of Cyprus College in California, is ticketed to play center field, and she brings two attributes, arm strength and speed, that Wallin says are facets that UHH is greatly improved upon as a team.
Wallin calls Arren Nunez, another transfer from Cyprus, a “five-tool player,” and Alexis Ramirez comes from Fresno City College (Calif.) and bats left-handed.
Sophomore Collen Aubrey has positioned herself for playing time, while freshmen Brandi Wilson and Mariah Wyckoff are also in the mix, as is returner Angeline Cruz, a junior.
Sophomore Collete Black will see time in the lineup either as a designated player or pinch-hitter, but Wallin admits it may take time for everyone to gel.
“I don’t see us getting out of the gate very fast, because I think we’re still trying to come up with a set lineup,” she said. “Still trying to come up with a group of nine people that can play well together. But I think once we come up with that group, that unit will really be taking off.”
In addition to Nelson, the coach also sees contributions from the other three pitchers on the staff.
Vanessa Salinas, formerly of Fresno City College, is only 5–foot-4, but she’s armed with a deceptive delivery of her own and a spinner with good movement.
Freshman Hannah Peters likes to work the corners, while transfer Alyse Harris (Santa Barbara City College) is the power arm of the staff at 5-10.
“Vanessa is very competitive, very consistent and she’s had success at every level she’s been at,” Wallin said. “I really like how our staff gives teams four different looks to adjust to.”
Spencer says last year’s squad peaked too early and became lazy and complacent midseason. She’s not willing to take anything for granted during her senior year.
“We need to not disregard the little stuff. Because the little stuff is what’s going to hurt us, and we’re kind of lazy with it right now,” she said. “We just have to work on the little things and work outside of practice, and it will come together.”