Freshman Phenom

Before accepting an invitation to join the U.S. softball team, Jessica Iwata makes a quick trip home to Kaua‘i and sets aside time to talk about her dream season with MidWeek

The bold statement was greeted with cautious excitement by UH Wahine softball coach Bob Coolen. At the beginning of preseason practice, Coolen told his players to post their team goals in the locker room and individual goals in their lockers. The seniors made clear to their coach and junior teammates their expectations for the 2010 season – Hawaii was going to the World Series.

It was a gutsy prediction for a team that finished 30-24 in 2009.

Jessica Iwata finished her freshman season at UH with a .367 average and 18 home runs

Coaches are paid to worry about such details, freshmen are not. And for a plucky and talented infielder from Lihue, it was just further confirmation that she was in the right place. Not that Jessica Iwata has ever lacked confidence in her athletic ability. The 5-foot-4-inch power-hitting shortstop earned nine varsity letters in five sports at Kaua’i High School and embraced the challenge set by her older teammates.

“From the beginning they had set goals for us, and they really felt that we could make it that far,” says Iwata. “That class, our senior class, had been to regionals and super regionals, so they knew what it took and they really believed our team could make it that far. They reminded us numerous times that we are a great team and we can make it that far and compete at this level. That was great on their part. They had the drive and the confidence in us.”

Iwata finished the season hitting .367 with 18 home runs and 58 RBI, an impressive pile of statistics considering it wasn’t until the seventh game of the season that she got her first hit, and it wasn’t till the ninth that she began making an impact for which she is now celebrated. Up until that day, the 18-year-old played in six games and had just one hit in 10 at bats. She would turn things around as she got more comfortable playing against college competition, and as her coach settled on a lineup that complemented each player’s particular skills.

Iwata earned nine varsity letters in five sports at KHS

By the time Western Athletic Conference play began, Iwata and the Wahine were scary good – especially at the plate. The team burned through the WAC, winning all but one game – another goal was conference perfection – while hitting .357. During that 20-game stretch, Iwata posted a mind-boggling .488 batting average.

“Through preseason it was all about getting to know the players and what coach wanted in the lineup,” says the player whose head coach describes as having “raw power.”

“We didn’t have a set lineup until conference play, and I think that helped a lot once we started practicing and getting used to the people who were on the field,” says Iwata. “So when conference started, we had all the confidence in the world that we could beat everyone in our conference. Coach Bob always told us to see ourselves winning the game before the game starts, and then just go out and play the game.”

Iwata grew up playing baseball against the boys

Looking at Iwata’s season in hindsight, it seems hard to believe she had only one Division I scholarship offer. College coaches have discovered a wealth of softball talent in the Islands in recent years, and it would seem that a soft-spoken, power-hitting, slick-fielding middle infielder would be on everyone’s radar. But Coolen explains that softball recruiting depends heavily on exposure. Go to the right tournaments and everyone knows your name. Play just a few miles down the road and you can go nearly anonymous.

Ground zero for softball recruiting is in Colorado, which annually hosts tournaments for girls. Teams with big travel budgets can play in numerous tournaments and get put into the top-tier events. Those that don’t get delegated to the smaller contests in fields scattered throughout the area. Iwata played for Guava Jam, which was placed in the lowest of the three-tiered events. That meant any coaches wanting to take a look had to make good use of their in-car GPS units.

“I’m not sure many people saw her,” says Coolen. “I went to go watch Jessica play at a neighborhood field literally in the middle of nowhere. Most coaches were looking at the Gold teams in Boulder. All the other coaches who are being sent are going to Aurora because there is a centralized complex of eight fields and all you have to do is walk field to field to field. For the Sparkler Tournament (in which Guava Jam played), you have to find out where they are, find out how to get there, navigate your way through neighborhoods.”

Jessica at home on Kaua'i with brothers Aaron (left) and Shane and parents Jason and Jolly

Good thing for him – and for the Wahine.

Coolen said he knew Iwata was “going to be a very, very good player” and that she fit into the team’s recruiting philosophy that targets catchers, pitchers, shortstops and centerfielders. Once on campus, the players are moved to different positions. Iwata wasn’t going anywhere.

“She was our projected shortstop and it was going to be a matter of who was going to compete with her on our existing team,” says the coach, whose 2010 team consisted almost entirely of high school shortstops.

Though she’s quiet and definitely a “country girl,” Coolen believes Iwata’s confidence comes from her years playing baseball, which continued into high school where she played junior varsity until the softball season was changed to coincide with baseball.

“She probably could have played baseball throughout high school,” Coolen says. “She has that good of an arm, that good of range. She is just really an all-around good ballplayer.”

Playing the smaller-ball version of her sport also may have helped develop her impressive work ethic. A day after returning to Kaua’i after the Wahine’s monthlong road trip, Iwata found time for some batting practice before flying to Ohio a few days later to join the 2010 USA Softball Women’s Futures National Team. The freshman is the first Wahine to ever receive the honor.

Iwata grew up with two ballplaying brothers. Aaron, 21, and Shane, 15, were her practice partners growing up, and in her older sibling she found someone to mimic.

“I’ve always looked up to him, seeing him work hard on the field and seeing him just being able to play. He wasn’t always the greatest on the field, but just the way he worked and how hard he tried, he has always been my role model,” she says.

Coolen is expecting big things on the field from the sophomore-to-be. But he doesn’t want her worrying about carrying any of the leadership burden now that the team has lost five seniors. In her desire to succeed, Iwata can press too much, and the coach will be careful not to overburden his young star.

Still, Iwata is looking ahead. In between trips to the Mainland for play with the national team she is scheduling plenty of practice sessions, trips to the weight room and time thinking about a successful 2011. But while she will be counted on and is looking forward to carrying a lot of the offensive and defensive load next year, there is one statistical category she is satisfied leaving unchallenged: Kanani Pu’u-Warren’s record of 26 hit-by-pitches.

“She is a ball magnet,” Iwata says of the UH right-fielder. “I think she beat her record from last year. She counts her beaning percentage and is very proud of holding that top spot. We’ll let her have all of those.”

No one knows what self-motivating messages will adorn the Wahine locker room next season, but with the top five hitters in the batting order returning, confidence is high.

But then everything in Iwata’s future seems bright. So why not a return run?

She isn’t ruling it out.

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