- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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If you've ever been tempted by brochures offering a free resort getaway in exchange for just a few minutes of your time to ponder a presentation on the benefits of time-share ownership, you know how 14 different softball teams have felt this season after visiting Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium on the campus of the University of Hawaii.
Call it the paradox of paradise.
Lured to the sunny skies and tranquil waters of the most isolated population center on the planet (California, the nearest populated landmass is nearly 2,500 miles away), opponent after opponent has limped away from Honolulu feeling burned in a way SPF 100 can do little to prevent.
"I don't think Hawaii is known for softball," Rainbow Wahine junior Kate Robinson said. "A lot of the teams that come down, they'll come down a couple of days early and then they'll play in the tournament and you can see the back of their legs are all sunburned. I'm sure some of the teams come not just to play us but to get a little vacation."
One of only five teams in the country with at least 40 wins and fewer than 10 losses this season, No. 17 Hawaii (40-8, 11-1 WAC) has been anything but a hospitable host on the field. The Rainbow Wahine have beaten ranked opponents Baylor, Oregon State, Cal and Nebraska at home and have compiled a 14-2 record on the road and at neutral sites, silencing whispers that they can't win on the mainland. Hawaii almost certainly has wrapped up an NCAA Tournament bid and controls its own fate in the Western Athletic Conference race with a three-game series against longtime nemesis Fresno State looming at home this weekend,.
At first glance, Hawaii is a team that seems to be playing beyond its years with a roster that includes just two seniors and seven upperclassmen total. But coach Bob Coolen's team returned eight starters and four pitchers this season after posting a 32-22 record last season. Far from being satisfied with that success and settling for gradual development, the returning players came back hungry for more after missing out on the NCAA Tournament when Nevada rallied from a one-game deficit to win the best-of-three conference tournament final.
"After last season, we were so disappointed with how things worked out in the end," sophomore Clare Warwick said. "It's just the feeling of getting so close, and then all of a sudden, within the space of a day, sort of losing that one game and it kicks you out. We just came back with so much intensity. We didn't want to leave it up to the WAC; we wanted to get it all done before the WAC."
And on a young team developing an identity and character all its own, there could be no more appropriate leader than a senior who counts Terrell Owens as her favorite athlete and is making the most of a second chance she wasn't sure her body would give her.
A first-team all-conference pick in each of the last two seasons (she made the second team as a freshman), senior Tyleen Tausaga is undeniably the team's statistical leader after leading all players with 10 home runs and a .373 batting average last season. But her contributions don't end, or even peak, with her production at the plate. The senior is a visible and vocal leader.
"She's been a great leader," Robinson said. "Every practice, every game, she's talking to us, telling us to stay focused. Every week, if we move up in the polls, everyone gets excited because it's been a long time since we've been there. And she just tells us we're not No. 1 and there is always room to get better."
Hawaii wouldn't be where it is right now without Tausaga's production on and off the field, which is all the more remarkable when you take into account that her availability to fill either role was far from a sure thing until a few months before the season started. After tearing her ACL last summer, she admits she went into an emotional funk, wondering whether she would be able to make it back from surgery for her final season.
"I was going through some rough times," Tausaga said. "When I wasn't cleared [to resume practicing], I kind of separated myself from the team."
But a conversation with Coolen -- and from Tausaga's description, it sounded more like a blunt ultimatum than a soothing pep talk -- was all she needed to refocus.
"I really, really took what he said to heart," Tausaga said. "I realized that's exactly what I was doing, I was separating myself. So as soon as I got cleared, and after the conversation with Bob, everything changed. I realized I wasn't even thinking about the team; I was thinking about myself. I guess he put it out there for me when we had that conversation and everything changed for me."
As for her unusual pick for favorite athlete? It turns out you only have to get a few thousand miles away from Dallas to find someone who is still in Owens' corner.
"I don't know, he's a big talker, but he always backs up what he can do," Tausaga said. "Everybody don't like him because he talks -- he talks so much about himself -- but he always performs on the field. I mean, I don't talk about myself like that, but I just want to always perform on the field. I just like the way he plays."
Through the first 48 games this season, Tausaga already has improved on last season's impressive numbers, hitting .401 with 12 home runs and 42 RBIs. But only the batting average is good enough to lead the team at the moment, thanks to the breakout season being turned in by Robinson.
A two-way player who neither pitched nor hit much her first two seasons, she leads the team in home runs and RBIs, hitting fifth behind Tausaga, and is 12-0 with a 1.44 ERA while splitting starts in the circle with sophomore Justine Smethurst. In 373 at-bats against Robinson, opponents have scored just 29 runs. In 139 at-bats of her own, she's driven in 53 runs. Talk about making a difference.
"I know if I don't get on, if I don't get a hit, Kate will come through for me," Tausaga said. "And having that in my mind, makes it so much easier for me to be at bat. If I don't do it, she'll do it, and that's how it's been this whole season."
Adjusting to Coolen's coaching style took a little time for Robinson -- she managed to massage words like "nitpicky," "demanding" and "perfectionist" into compliments while describing him -- but it was never a question of her passion for the game.
"Pretty much my day is determined by softball," the soft-spoken Robinson admitted. "For the past 10 years, that's been my thing, is softball. I'm lucky that I came to college to play, because I don't really know if I could come to college and not play softball. It kind of motivates me to go to classes and study."
Both Tausaga and Robinson are Honolulu products who chose to stay home for college. All told, 12 of the team's 21 players are originally from Hawaii, including 11 from the island of O'ahu and eight players who start regularly. In a softball world where the reach of California and Arizona still extends to almost every roster in the top 25 (there are five Californians on the Hawaii roster), the presence of so many local players makes the team's success this season that much more meaningful to those involved. These were Hawaii kids long before they got the uniforms.
"My freshman year, we didn't have that many local girls on the team," Tausaga said. "Now, more than half the team is from here. Of course, we're proud. I guess some other teams, they don't think us local girls can play. For our starting lineup to be all locals, or mostly locals, it's great. We're not just out here; we can play softball, too."
Added Robinson: "We all knew each other, we all grew up playing against each other, playing with each other."
Reality is that for all the chemistry, hard work and outstanding skill, Hawaii still faces an uphill climb to reach its first Women's College World Series. No matter what happens during the remainder of the regular season and conference tournament, simple geography guarantees that not only will the Rainbow Wahine not get to play host to a regional, they'll have to either travel farther than any other team to reach whatever site they're assigned to or stay on the mainland for the duration of the postseason (May 2 marks the end of the spring semester at the University of Hawaii).
But rising to challenges seems to be the foundation on which this season's success rests.
"If we had a record of 40-8, which we have now, and hadn't played any ranked teams, it wouldn't really mean as much," Smethurst said. "And maybe we wouldn't be ranked as high as we are either. I know that Bob [Coolen] purposely made our schedule hard this year to push us, because he knew that we could handle this kind of competition."
Two years ago, Michigan signaled a new era in college softball by becoming the first team from east of the Mississippi River to win a national championship. Now Hawaii has its sights set on expanding the game's borders even more and carrying home the trophy over a slightly larger body of water.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.