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Thursday, May 24, 2007
Postseason success means tough travel for Rainbow Wahine

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

The metaphorical road to the Women's College World Series may be long and winding for each of the eight teams that eventually reaches Oklahoma City, but it doesn't have anything on the very real miles the University of Hawaii softball team has already piled up this month.
Hawaii
Hawaii boasts a talented -- and well-traveled -- softball team.

For the Rainbow Wahine, metaphorical treks take a backseat to coin-operated washers and free continental breakfasts.

Fresh off knocking off No. 12 seed UCLA, as well as Loyola Marymount and UC Santa Barbara, in the Los Angeles Regional, the Rainbow Wahine are setting up shop in Knoxville, Tenn., for this weekend's super regional against No. 5 Tennessee. Well, perhaps they're not quite so fresh after a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call, two plane flights from Los Angeles to Greenville, S.C., by way of Houston, and a four-hour bus ride that put them in Knoxville just shy of midnight on Tuesday.

"Basically the whole day, we were traveling," junior pitcher/first baseman Kate Robinson said. "We were pretty tired, but I think we were more hungry than we were tired. We only had one stop and we didn't really have time to get anything in Houston. When we got here we just kind of dispersed and got food and then came back to our rooms and went to bed. It was already like midnight at that time."

Such is life for a team now 4,490 statute miles from its campus in Honolulu, which if you're counting, is nearly 200 miles more than the distance between New York and Rome.

Hawaii hasn't been home in nearly three weeks. The spring semester in Honolulu came to a close on May 2 and after the exams that followed, the team headed to Fresno for the WAC tournament. Instead of flying home for two days between the conclusion of that event and the start of the NCAA Tournament, the Rainbow Wahine waited on the mainland for news of the bracket and then headed by bus to UCLA for the Los Angeles Regional.

Even the biggest win in program history took a backseat to travel logistics. After beating Loyola Marymount on Sunday to clinch its spot in Knoxville, having already eliminated UCLA before the World Series for the first time in that program's storied history, Hawaii had to hustle just to find a place to sleep. Instead of delivering a speech about unfinished business or living in the moment, head coach Bob Coolen was living out an Orbitz commercial, dialing for rooms.

We're out here [in Knoxville] and there are little bugs, it's humid and it's hot. We land in Houston and we're in the middle of a storm and it's pouring rain. We're out in L.A. and it doesn't get sunny until noontime, when all the fog and smog and everything burns off. So it's just a learning environment for them that so many different places over here on the mainland are so different from each other.

Bob Coolen

"We didn't really have to say much," Coolen said. "We had other things on our mind, like getting out of a hotel that we weren't booked to stay in anymore. So we had to go find a hotel to stay in. I didn't even get out of the stadium at UCLA, and I was on the phone with my administrator, and we were trying to find a hotel. And then my wife found a hotel we had stayed at earlier in the year."

Not that minor matters like all-day treks or hotel emergencies bother the barnstorming Rainbow Wahine all that much. Like all those born to travel, they don't sweat the details and instead make the most of the experiences. While Coolen was scrambling to find a place for the regional champs to sleep, the team was gathered at a traditional Hawaiian potluck cookout in the parking lot at Easton Stadium, feasting on a variety of traditional foods served up by local parents and fans.

"We have such a family atmosphere; it's more of an ohana atmosphere," Coolen said, using the Hawaiian word for family. "After games and stuff, we don't need to spend a real long time discussing anything, because we all know what journey we're on."

Coolen seems like the perfect fit for the program, both on the field where he has developed a balanced team composed mostly of kids from Hawaii with a smattering of Australians and Californians, and off the field where he's essentially team travel guide. A native of Brockton, Mass., who was a three-sport star at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and still pronounces Hawaiian words with a hint of a Beantown accent, Coolen loves the road.

"I enjoy traveling," the coach admitted. "It's something when I was younger, I always envied those people who went to the airport all the time and took flights and had that type of lifestyle. When I worked at the Div. II school I was at, Bentley College, I brought our team down to Florida and I enjoyed that tremendously. We'd go down there and play two weeks worth of games and then go back up to Bentley College and play in the snow and the 30-degree weather.

"When I got to Hawaii, I was stoked that we were going to be traveling all the time. Because I enjoy it; I love going to the airport, getting on a plane and going on new adventures all the time."

After gradually increasing the number of road trips the program made each season from two to four -- and all road trips are extended road trips for Hawaii -- Coolen has learned how to strike a delicate balance between duplicating the familiar structure of a home stand, which plays such a big role in homefield advantage, and creating an enjoyable experience that many of the players haven't had before.

"We're used to the traveling; it's just a matter of keeping their days busy," Coolen said. "We don't want to spend too much time down in the hotel. Inactivity just really gets to us. We need to be going; we need to mimic what we do at home, which is constantly moving from Point A to Point B, whether it be for classes or whether it be doing some activity. And that's what we try and impress on our players; just make it like a regular day at home."

Bob Coolen
Hawaii's coaching staff has struck a balance between keeping the team busy on road trips and keeping them focused on the task at hand.
Only as Justine Smethurst and Clare Warwick, the team's two Australian players, pointed out earlier this year, regular days at home -- be they in Melbourne, Canberra or Honolulu -- don't provide easy access to sites like the Golden Gate Bridge, a highlight of a field trip to San Francisco during an earlier series at San Jose State. Coolen makes it a point to rent minivans when possible on the road, allowing different groups of players to set off for different destinations. Be they landmarks or latte stands, it's all about the experience.

"It's just a different atmosphere," Coolen said. "We're out here [in Knoxville] and there are little bugs, it's humid and it's hot. We land in Houston and we're in the middle of a storm and it's pouring rain. We're out in L.A. and it doesn't get sunny until noontime, when all the fog and smog and everything burns off. So it's just a learning environment for them that so many different places over here on the mainland are so different from each other."

Of course, there is still that laundry. For all the sightseeing, learning experiences and softball glory, life on the road is still life on the road. And this isn't an MLB team carrying a separate roster of handlers and assistants in its wake to attend to every need.

"We have our equipment manager, and he'll wash our uniforms and our practice clothes, but we have to do our laundry," Robinson lamented. "Our personal clothes we have to do on our own."

At least players were allowed to choose their own roommates for this longest of trips, after having them randomly assigned earlier in the season. And for Robinson and roomie Kaulana Gould, simple pleasures are easy to find when you're staying at hotels that often have more in common with Tom Bodett than anyone named Hilton.

"We're always happy if there's a refrigerator," Robinson readily admitted. "We always need food around us. Our last hotel actually had two TVs, and they were in two different rooms, so we each got to have our own TV."

It's all enough to make facing Tennessee ace Monica Abbott just another part of the travel itinerary, sandwiched between dinner and curfew.

"On Friday, with an 8 p.m. game, we're probably going to go and do an activity, let them walk around the mall or something like that," Coolen said. "Get out of the hotel and have a late lunch/early dinner together as a team and then come back to the hotel and start concentrating on what we need to do Friday night."

There will be plenty of time to ponder the epic nature of a team from Hawaii reaching the Women's College World Series if it happens. But for now, life on the road boils down to one simple truth for the Rainbow Wahine: If it's Friday, this must be Knoxville.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.