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Sunday, May 30, 2010
Hawaii makes history with one swing

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For a moment, there was only silence as the bright yellow ball arced toward a white foul pole set almost helpfully against a backdrop of green trees.

Hawaii Softball
Jenna Rodriguez's walk-off home run eliminated top-seeded Alabama and sent Hawaii to the WCWS.

The No. 1 seed in the tournament, Alabama, joined by more than 3,000 fans, looked on in hushed disbelief, stunned as the ball's descent carried it unquestionably to the right of the pole down the left-field line at the Alabama Softball Complex.

Only then did the noise return, as screams of elation from a few dozen throats replaced the roar of thousands that seconds earlier enveloped the field. Those seconds and the 200 or so feet the ball traveled proved the final leg of a journey that encompassed thousands of miles over the course of decades for a coach and a softball program.

Hawaii is going to the Women's College World Series.

Down a run and down to its last out in the bottom of the seventh inning of the decisive game of the Tuscaloosa Super Regional, No. 16 Hawaii authored the most stunning upset -- given seeding and circumstances -- in super regional history when junior Jenna Rodriguez's two-run, walk-off blast eliminated top-seeded Alabama with a 5-4 win.

"I knew it had a chance of going foul," Rodriguez said of the hit. "I stood there and watched it because I had to know if it was going fair or foul. It was a great experience."

The celebration that home run sparked came little more than 24 hours after the Crimson Tide needed just five innings to invoke the mercy rule in an 8-0 win in the first game of the best-of-three series on its home field. And it was only fitting that the clinching win came on the strength of two home runs, both from Rodriguez, for the team that had already shattered the NCAA's single-season home run record.

"It's been the most exciting day, other than the birth of my two children, in my life," Hawaii coach Bob Coolen said. "You aspire as a coach to make it to the World Series and this team really showed resilience and fortitude out there."

It took a little bit of both qualities to beat Alabama in back-to-back games, getting up off the deck to reclaim leads after Crimson Tide comebacks in both games. But it also took a considerable amount of both to get the program to Tuscaloosa in the first place. Hawaii has been on the road for 22 days, traveling to the WAC tournament in New Mexico, an NCAA regional in California and finally here to Alabama. But more than that, Coolen has been building toward this moment since leaving the mainland 21 years ago.

A native of Somerville, Mass., who still carries a distinct Boston brogue, Coolen arrived as an assistant in 1990 after a stint as head coach at Bentley University, a Division II program outside Boston. Two years later he was named head coach at Hawaii and given three years to make something of a program that at that point had a 151-195 record.

He barely made that deadline, but it's fitting that the program's greatest triumph means a trip to Oklahoma City, in the same region that essentially saved his job 16 years ago and set the stage for today's accomplishment.

"My first year we were one win better than any of the other programs had done," Coolen said. "My second year, we had a losing record, so I didn't get a [contract] rollover. And then my third year is when I brought in [Australian pitcher] Brooke Wilkins and we went to Kansas City for our first NCAA [tournament] and then they rolled over my contract.

Hawaii Softball
Bob Coolen has seen his rebuilding job at Hawaii culminate with the school's first trip to the WCWS.

"They gave me three years. I said it would take three years. And it took three years. And we put Hawaii on the map."

As the celebration raged on after Sunday's game, a Hawaiian flag made its way out to the field and was paraded around like the Stanley Cup in hockey, passed from one player to the next as the small Hawaii contingent in the stands looked on and waved ti leaves. Coolen may be an outsider by birth and may still pronounce some Hawaiian words like something out of "Good Will Hunting," but there's no mistaking him when he repeats the word that tells you as much about the program as this season's 154 home runs or NCAA-leading .657 slugging percentage.

It's "ohana," the Hawaiian word for family.

Senior Katie Grimes fell in love with the state while in high school when she visited an uncle who lived there. Intent on playing softball, the Florida native launched a one-catcher lobbying campaign to get a look from Coolen. She's been behind the plate for him for the last four years. But more than simply playing for Hawaii, she's come to appreciate an identity that carries more with it than does the name on many jerseys.

"It's more a pride-and-respect type of thing, that the islands are sacred and it's just that's how they feel about it," Grimes said. "Everyone over there, everyone born and raised there, they really love their land that they live on. And so with that, I think it kind of develops a whole unity of how the islands should be, how they are taken care of -- or not taken care of. The culture is a lot different out there. And being a blonde, I definitely don't fit in, but I think I've embraced the culture and all the people."

That independent streak and pride that borders on cockiness carries over to the field for the Rainbow Wahine. Grimes called just about every pitch for both Australian freshman Kaia Parnaby and sophomore Stephanie Ricketts on Sunday, relying less on scouting reports than her instincts and what she had seen through the first two games. Coolen doesn't do detailed scouting. He even memorably claimed he didn't really know who SEC Pitcher of the Year Kelsi Dunne was before arriving in town for the super regional.

The Rainbow Wahine go out and play. And if the team looks awful for a few innings against Dunne's formidable changeup or if freshman Jessica Iwata swings at a few rise balls over her head, it's all right. They prefer to rely on their own strengths, confident that eventually Iwata will do something like hit a grand slam, as she did in the team's 8-7 win in the second game of the super regional.

"My philosophy is let them play the game and they'll learn from their mistakes," Coolen said. "And a mistake may cost me, but I've learned that they grow more if I let them do their own thing. Like Katie -- I may have called, in that game, two pitches. That's it."

Three years ago, Hawaii came within a win of the Women's College World Series. An unseeded Cinderella, they were eliminated by Monica Abbott and Tennessee in the decisive third game of the Knoxville Super Regional. Getting to Oklahoma City that season would have represented something of a miracle.

Getting there this season required a miraculous ending, but it's a trip Hawaii planned.

"After the game [in 2007] was over in Tennessee, the third game, there was just sort of an exhaling that we had come of age, that we were satisfied," Coolen said. "And everyone said that, 'There's no crying, there's no remorse; we gave it our best effort.'

"This team didn't want to be that. There would have been a lot of tears after this game if we had lost. What happened was this team had a different attitude."

Now they want to keep playing right through to the best-of-three championship series at the World Series. Not that they're taking for granted winning one of the most memorable games in college softball history.

"I just am beyond words," Grimes said in trying to sum up her feelings.

Sometimes silence says it all, like in the moment on a Sunday afternoon in Alabama that the Rainbow Wahine will never forget.

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.