Aussies propel Hawaii to No. 17 ranking
Justine Smethurst and Clare Warwick field many strange questions about their native Australia. But it's their play on the field that has Hawaii fans cheering.
The universal language of softball drew Justine Smethurst and Clare Warwick to the University of Hawaii. Of course, contrary to what some Americans seem to think, the two Australians were also long familiar with the more regional language known as English.
"I've had some weird questions," Smethurst said of her time in the United States. "Like, 'What language do you speak?' "
Waves are big business in Hawaii, where beaches, surfing and the natural landscape help support the thriving tourism industry. And while it's not quite as dramatic as anything in the Banzai Pipeline, Smethurst and Warwick represent the latest in a wave of talent that continues to drift across the Pacific from Australia and wash up on the field at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium.
Pitcher Brooke Wilkins arrived first in 1994, two years after Coolen took over from former head coach Rayla Allison and a year after a 24-35 season that still ranks as the only losing mark during Coolen's tenure. Wilkins helped lead the program to its NCAA Tournament debut in her first season and was an All-American the next season. Catcher Natalie Wood and infielder Melissa McGie joined Wilkins in 1995, as the Rainbow Wahine made it back to the NCAA Tournament.
All told, eight Australians played for Hawaii before Smethurst and Warwick arrived last season, with five earning either conference or national individual honors.
While Australians have played for colleges on the mainland (Louisville senior pitcher Cat Bishop is probably the most prominent Australian currently playing in the United States), Smethurst said it was that lineage in Honolulu that attracted her to the program.
She reached out to Coolen about the possibility of becoming the ninth Australian to play for him, and the coach made the long flight (even a direct flight from Honolulu to Sydney takes about 10 hours) to scout the pitcher at nationals. Only instead of coming back with a fake didgeridoo or some other piece of tourist kitsch to go with his new pitcher, Coolen came back with a third baseman as well.
"I wasn't originally even thinking about coming overseas, but coaches back home sort of mentioned it would be a good idea to come over and get the game experience," Warwick said, admitting she had never been to the United States. "And Bob was at nationals while he was looking at Jus, and he had a chat to me, and things sort of just fell into place after that."
Softball rates as more than just an athletic afterthought for Australian girls, but Smethurst said it ranks behind more established sports like basketball and netball in popularity.
|Hawaii's home-grown talent|
|One of only five teams in the country with at least 40 wins and fewer than 10 losses this season, No. 17 Hawaii isn't your traditional softball power. But the Rainbow Wahine are making people change their views. Graham Hays|
"It's like basketball, but you're not allowed to dribble the ball," Smethurst said. "And there's no backboard."
And to think Vegemite seemed like an acquired taste.
Basketball's primary place in the consciousness of Australia's women's sports community -- if not already evident in a line of WNBA players stretching from Michele Timms to Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor and Erin Phillips -- became clear when the Opals won the World Championships in 2006.
So despite some success at the international level in softball, including bronze medals at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics and a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics, Australia has turned to the United States to help provide the infrastructure needed to keep the sport's best and brightest from stagnating or switching sports.
"At the moment, they're really trying to encourage girls to go overseas, because the game experience is invaluable," Warwick said. "You just get a high level of competition 60 games a season, and it's just nothing [like] the sort of games we get back home and the amount of opposition we get as well."
On the field, Smethurst and Warwick are more than living up to the standards set by their predecessors at Hawaii. The ace of the pitching staff, Smethurst is 15-6 with a 1.68 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 141.1 innings this season. And after a freshman season that was by her own admission a learning process (despite hitting .307), Warwick ranks second on the team with a .396 batting average and has improved her fielding percentage significantly at the hot corner.
Not to mention the pair serves as unofficial ambassadors for their country, correcting misconceptions one "Crocodile Dundee" joke at a time. People frequently quiz Smethurst about a host of Australian institutions. Unfortunately, for a girl from Melbourne, it's a little like asking someone from Philadelphia to explain ranching in Wyoming or alligator viewing in Florida.
"Just about animals, like kangaroos and koalas, and the outback and country and stuff like that," Smethurst said of the most common inquiries. "But I'm from a big city, so it's not what people expect, I don't think."
Warwick's hometown of Melba is a suburb of Canberra, Australia's biggest noncoastal city and the source of continual trivia success for the bemused third baseman.
"It's the capital, for a start," Warwick said. "A lot of people think Sydney is, but Canberra is. Yeah, I don't know, it's just a nice place. Mellow, a bit of city, bit of country, all in one. Best of both worlds, I guess."
Best of both worlds is a sentiment that might apply equally well to the interplay of nationalities on the softball team in Honolulu. On a team that is proud of its strong homegrown contingent -- more than half the roster comes from the state of Hawaii -- the most notable outsiders have been welcomed with open arms.
"We don't make fun of them," senior Tyleen Tausaga said. "We're trying to be just like them. Everybody, we try and talk like them, or they'll try to talk like us, just switching up the roles. I mean, Jussie, she always tries to talk pidgin, like us locals and stuff."
Smethurst and Warwick may have come for the softball, but the experiences available on and off the field are more than just an added bonus.
"We went into San Francisco when we played against San Jose [State] this year," Warwick said. "We saw the Golden Gate Bridge and everything. That was definitely my most favorite place."
Oklahoma City might not rival the sights and sounds of San Francisco, but Warwick and Smethurst might want to reserve judgment. It's a pretty nice tourist destination the first week of June if you've got a bat and spikes. Not to mention, they speak the language.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.