June 1, 2010

By Bo Allegrucci
Special to NCAA.com

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. - If we were talking about the College World Series or March Madness or a BCS bowl game, Sherise Musquiz would've just become a household name on the American sports scene.

But this small town in Missouri and the Division II softball championships are not in the national sports spotlight. So, when Musquiz had a Memorial Day weekend performance that was reminiscent of Danny Manning carrying the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks to the national basketball title, but wasn't on prime time television, only those who were there to witness the performance could enjoy it.

Sandwiched on a sliver of land between the Missouri River to the west and an active set of railroad tracks to the east, 389 people at the Heritage Park Softball Complex watched Musquiz lead the Hawaii Pacific softball team to its first Division II national championship Monday with a memorable 4-3 victory over Valdosta State. Musquiz earned tournament MVP honors, winning all four games as a starting pitcher and batting .333 with four RBI and a run scored.

"Sherise was just so impressive this week," Hawaii Pacific coach Bryan Nakasone said. "We rode her arm through the regionals and Super Regionals and thought she might get little sore and tired playing this much, but she stuck it out. She's a tough kid."

The 2010 national title concludes a college career that almost never happened. The 6-foot Musquiz was scarcely recruited out of El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, Calif., where she played both volleyball and softball.

Musquiz was ready to take a break from sports for at least her freshman year of college, and she knew she wanted to go to school in Hawaii after a family vacation to Maui. She just didn't know Hawaii had any colleges other than the Division I University of Hawaii.

"I always wanted to come to Hawaii but I didn't really want to play a sport," Musquiz said. "Then my mom, behind my back, filled out a survey on the Hawaii Pacific website and the next day Coach O (HPU assistant coach Howard Okita) e-mailed us back. I was so mad at her because I didn't want to do anything my first year, but now I'm glad because I would've been able to do what I did without that."

Musquiz took her lumps as a freshman along with the rest of a growing Sea Warrior program, but she saw the promise and potential around her in Hawaii Pacific's softball program and decided to stick around and step up to the plate.

"I noticed my freshman year we might be good, and I like a challenge ... I lost a lot of games that year so I wanted to come back and keep playing," Musquiz said. "I didn't hit at all my first two seasons, but I started pinch-hitting a little bit last season and they finally put me in the lineup this year full-time after our trip to Modesto."

"Coach O" is an interesting story in his own right, and undoubtedly the perfect manager for the soft-spoken Musquiz.

Okita worked for the government and coached high school softball in Hawaii for 12 years before taking over the program at NAIA Hawaii-Loa College in 1988. He won the 1991 national championship before the school merged with Hawaii Pacific in 1992. "We have very good athletes in Hawaii, and they play a lot of different sports," Okita said with a tear rolling out of each eye after Monday's championship. "The athleticism of these kids is great and they have good heart ... we just don't have a lot of great pitching on the island.

"I sent one of our scouts over to watch Sherise her senior year after she filled out the questionnaire on our website. She came over and decided to give it a try, so we gave her some money the first year and increased her scholarship each season. I think it's been worth it. I wish we had a hundred more of her."

Okita was HPU's head coach until two seasons ago, when he reduced his responsibilities to co-head coach alongside his longtime right-hand man, Nakasone. Okita wanted more time to watch his own granddaughter play softball at East Carolina University, and he completed his self-demotion to assistant coach last season as Nakasone took full control of the Hawaii Pacific program.

The transition has been barely a transition at all for the Sea Warrior players and coaches, and Okita remains as much a piece of the team's close-knit chemistry as he ever was. It is still his program, in many ways, and his softball fingers are still on the HPU pulse.

"Our freshmen really surprised us this year, and we had good leadership in our seniors," Okita said. "They're quiet leaders, but they went through a lot in their four or five years here, and they instilled in these younger kids `Hey, we wanna' win'.

"Everything fell into place and they had an outstanding season. This is the ultimate prize."

The Hawaii Pacific players now call Nakasone "coach", but they call the 74-year old Okita `Tata', the Philippine term for papa.

Thanks to `Tata', and Nakasone, and players like Sherise Musquiz, everyone else now calls the Sea Warriors champions.