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Stephen Tsai: 'Bows 'would have done some damage' in NCAAs

May 28—1/1

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JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

UH coach Rich Hill embraced pitcher Tai Atkins during senior night festivities on Saturday at Les Murakami Stadium.

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The 2024 University of Hawaii baseball team was good enough to be disappointed.

When the NCAA announced the field for regionals, the Rainbow Warriors were not among the 64 programs called.

UH coach Rich Hill believed the 'Bows made a strong case for an at-large invitation. The 'Bows were 18-2 down the stretch — tied for nation's best over the final 20 games of the regular season — and were second nationally with a 3.78 earned-run average.

"The first thing that comes to mind," Hill said after the full field was announced, "is I wanted these seniors to experience the NCAA Tournament, which is a truly awesome event, a lifetime experience. The second thing is understand it's a very tough road. The (selection) committee has a very tough job. There are a lot of good teams. I thought we put ourselves in position with our great finish. It wasn't to be."

Two factors worked against the 'Bows. In four of the previous five years, the Big West, which UH has competed in baseball in since 2013, received only a single bid. The odds were long that a third Big West team would receive an invitation beyond regular-season champion UC Santa Barbara, seeded 14th and host of a regional, and UC Irvine, which will play in the Corvallis, Ore., regional.

The Big West also is the only Division I conference that does not have a league tournament. (The league will have a postseason tournament beginning next season.) That creates a steeper path for a team that struggles early.

"That's an understatement," Hill said of the impact of a league without a tournament. "Traditionally, we've played sizzling hot toward the end of the year, and that's the way it's supposed to be. Winning 18 out of your last 20, starting three lefties in the rotation the way we're hitting, would have done some damage (in a tournament), absolutely."

In 2022, Hill's first season as UH head coach after 23 years at San Diego, the 'Bows won eight of their final 12 games. Last year, they finished 7-2, including a three-game sweep of UC Santa Barbara, likely knocking the Gauchos out of postseason consideration.

"You get to that conference tournament and you're playing teams on neutral fields, it all goes differently," Hill said. "This would have been a good year (for a tournament). But the same thing with last year, and the year before."

The thing is, the 'Bows' reward was to enter the discussion for an NCAA regional. Following the 2023 season, the 'Bows were under construction after losing their pitching coach (Mathew Troupe), recruiting coordinator (Dan Cox), top two hitters (Matt Wong, Jacob Igawa), and series-opening starter (Harry Gustin). They also had to add arms to a staff in which seven pitchers accounted for 84.4% of the innings.

Hill hired Keith Zuniga, who previously was New Mexico's interim head coach, as pitching coach. Zuniga incorporated more analytics and in-game reviews into his coaching style. And long-time head coach Lindsay Meggs — Hill's childhood friend — was coaxed out of retirement to coach this season.

Hill loaded the pre-conference schedule with series against Ole Miss, North Carolina State and Rice. He also received NCAA approval to play Tuesday games against the three local Division II schools. (The Big West's other 10 other members regularly schedule mid-week games against other California schools.)

The 'Bows lost five of their first seven Big West games, including all three to UC Irvine. Two weeks later, they were swept by UC Santa Barbara to fall to 4-8 in the Big West.

But then the 'Bows went on a tear, winning 16 of their final 18 Big West games. The 'Bows found production with as many as six left-handed hitters in the lineup. The top of their lineup — shortstop Jordan Donahue, second baseman/outfielder Jake Tsukada and catcher/designated hitter Austin Machado — all batted .337 or better.

Center fielder Matthew Miura, who succeeded Wong, hit .303 and did not make an error while starting all 53 games. Jared Quandt had a two-homer game. Naighel Ali'i Calderon had a walk-off double. Freshman third baseman Elijah Ickes started every game.

Even shuffling the rotation, the 'Bows often started three left-handed pitchers in a series. After struggling early in the move from swingman, Harrison Bodendorf regained his role as Friday starter.

And Randy Abshier, who was named Big West Pitcher of the Week on Monday, allowed one earned run in 251/3 innings in his final four stars.

Freshman pitchers Itsuki Takemoto, Sebastian Gonzalez, Zac Tenn and Brayden Marx also had breakout outings.

"I'm searching for adjectives for these young people who achieved so much, especially our seniors over the the past three years," Hill said of the 14 seniors. "They won 92 games (in that span)."

Hill said he will explore the transfer portal to supplement the roster. Machado (St. John's) and Tsukada (Portland) joined the 'Bows as transfers last summer.

The 'Bows also will monitor next month's Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft to see if any of their recruits will be picked. After completing their junior years, Donahue and Machado also are considered draft possibilities.

'It's all about that roster," Hill said. "We know we can build a team. We know we can build team chemistry. The fans here are the best. When we get into that environment of Les Murakami Stadium, we're going to have a chance to win every (home) game."

Hill also said the Murakami Stadium will have a new artificial surface and batting facility. The Domo Turf was installed ahead of the 2008 season. This season, pieces of turf were dislodged and repasted during games. The batting cage has been without a roof for two years.

"It will," Hill said of the plans for the upgrades. "I'm not going to use 'hope' as a verb. ... That beautiful new surface, that brand new batting-cage facility that the Legislature was so kind to approve, we're going through the process now and things are starting to move. These are very exciting times for Rainbow baseball."