SALEM, Va. -- Rita Hokianga grew up in New Zeland, but had a certain talent that led to her coming to America.
Hokianga threw five hitless innings in the Lady Buffs’ Division II championship game against Valdosta State, and finished with a four-hitter as West Texas A&M edged the Blazers 3-2 to claim the school’s first softball national championship. When it was time to name a most outstanding player for the five-day tournament, Hokianga was the selection.
“She's why we're sitting here,” Lady Buffs coach Kevin Blaskowski said during his team’s postgame press conference.
That statement is hard to argue.
Except for the first 2.1 innings of the Lady Buffs’ second game of the tournament, Hokianga, a junior who came to the team this year from Eastern Arizona Junior College, threw every other pitch in the tournament -- a total of 393 pitches. She finished with a 4-0 record, giving up 18 hits, five earned runs, 21 strikeouts.
“Every game this week, she pitched with everything that she had,” Blaskowski said. “She pitched more innings this week than she has in probably the past six weeks. We put our team on her back. We weren't the offensive team we probably needed to be all week long. We were opportunistic, but we didn't go out and create the big runs. ... But we knew if we gave her a chance, she would certainly respond.”
Blaskowski was showering this praise on a player he didn’t even know about until out of the blue he received an email from her last season inquiring about the possibility of transferring West Texas A&M once her two seasons in Arizona had come to an end.
“I guess you could say she recruited me,” he said.
Hokianga’s impact on the Lady Buffs was even greater if you consider that her best friend from her team in Arizona, Kaisha Dacosin, joined the pitcher in transferring to WT. All Dacosin, who became part of the team as a walk-on, did was earned the starting left fielder job, and eventually became the Lady Buffs’ cleanup hitter.
Hokianga was a member of the under-19 New Zeland national team before her coaches back home offered her the opportunity to enroll at a U.S. college and continue to play softball on the other side of the world.
“The coaches in New Zeland could have picked anyone to come over here, but they chose me,” she said. “Coming to West Texas was the best option for me, and I'm glad now that I'm here.”
While Blaskowski believes that there were several other Lady Buffs who would have been acceptable choices for the MOP award -- such as national player of the year Renee Erwin, championship game heroin Brittany Gehle and senior third baseman Jessica Sipe -- he had no qualms with the committee’s decision.
“She deserved to be the most valuable player in the tournament,” the coach said. “But she's also part of the most valuable team --- in my eyes. We had a lot kids who could have been sitting in this situation right now.”
Blaskowski said perhaps the most amazing part of his pitcher’s journey is that there are plenty of people back in her native country who followed West Texas A&M just because of Hokianga.
“Half the country of New Zeland is following us now in social media,” Blaskowski said. “I got messages from people over there this morning, wishing us luck. It's the middle of the night over there right now.”
That’s the kind of attention winners can get.