Kaupe’s A Big Hit
Year removed from Maui High, she is smacking home runs for powerhouse Washington
Nawai Kaupe was born ready for this.
Kaupe smacked two home runs for her No. 1-ranked University of Washington softball team on Sunday, raising her batting average from .235 to .304 in one day.
Her giggle over the phone told the story — she’s got this. She has six starts and 13 appearances for the 18-0 Huskies.
“Every opportunity that I get to start or regardless, even on the bench, it’s still an amazing opportunity to be here,” said Kaupe, a 2017 Maui High School graduate. “It’s definitely a bigger step, definitely a bigger stage. It didn’t necessarily mean that I had to be better at the moment, because we all know that we’re all good. It’s the reason why we’re here.”
Kaupe still has to pinch herself at times — she started at shortstop in a 4-1 win over Wisconsin and at designated player in a 4-0 win over Long Beach State on Sunday. She homered against each and was 3-for-6 with three runs and three RBIs on the day.
She has three homers, seven runs scored and four RBIs going into the Husky Classic that begins Friday and will mark her first home games at Husky Softball Stadium along the banks of Lake Washington.
“As a team, absolutely, we are better than as individuals,” Kaupe said. “We need each other to boost each other up when we’re down or just reminding each other that we’re amazing players. . . . We dominate in class and at practice — that’s the main thing.”
She compiled a 3.57 grade-point average to make the dean’s list in the fall semester.
Kaupe’s athletic accomplishments never seem to stop. She has always been able to shine in any athletic realm whether it was being:
• the best player on her Central East Maui Little League All-Star baseball team that won the 2011 state crown;
• the Iao Intermediate 8th-grader who snapped a decades-old record in the softball throw at the 2013 Maui Kiwanis track meet — 70 feet farther than second place — before winning the 50-yard dash moments later;
• the athlete who claimed the 2013 Hershey’s Track and Field Games North American softball-throw title in Pennsylvania;
• the Maui High senior who sent the Sabers to the 2017 state softball tournament with a walk-off homer in her final at-bat on the Valley Isle.
“I didn’t even think about it when I was a small kid,” she said. “I thought I was going to play baseball all my life . I didn’t think softball was going to be an outlet for me. To have an opportunity just like this amazing school, it’s crazy.”
Washington head coach Heather Tarr has been in Kaupe’s shoes — as a former baseball standout in Kirkland, Wash., Tarr played in a Little League regional in San Bernardino, Calif., like Kaupe did.
“We think that her best softball is way ahead of her,” Tarr said. “She has definitely not reached her peak. I think her past experiences, we definitely know those, recognize them, and see them as valuable. One, being a young girl playing with all boys . . . I personally have that same experience growing up, so I see that as a huge asset.”
Kaupe didn’t start playing softball until she was 14; Tarr didn’t leave baseball behind until she was 15.
Tarr played in two Women’s College World Series for the Huskies, was named UW head coach in 2004 at the age of 29, and five years later she led them to the 2009 WCWS national title.
“Just when you look in Nawai’s eyes, you can tell she has that killer instinct, that mindset that she believes in herself, that she knows that she can do it,” Tarr said. “That self-belief is going to take her a long way in college softball.”
She was recruited by several other Pac-12 schools and the University of Hawaii.
“I made the right choice for myself, I fit in this program,” she said. “They share just as much love as I give them, which is priceless.”
Her family on Maui also is a huge part of her success.
Older brother Branden Kaupe was a fourth-round draft selection of the New York Mets out of Baldwin High School. He played four seasons of minor league ball from 2012 to 2015 before injuries ended his career.
“Branden taught me not only skills and my work ethics that I already had, but he also taught me life lessons that I really needed,” Kaupe said. “With that being said, he gave me so much confidence in myself. He was the main impact on my life — he’s the reason why I’m here.”
Napa Kaupe, Nawai’s father, has coached her throughout her days as a youth athlete. Both Napa and Branden Kaupe served on the Maui High coaching staff in her senior season.
“He’s been coaching me my whole life and when I say ‘My whole life,’ I mean my whole, entire life,” she said of her father.
Competitiveness with her boyfriend, Micah Jio, who led Maui High to the 2017 state baseball title and now plays at Oregon Institute of Technology, drives her to excel as well. He was the shortstop on the last baseball team Kaupe played for, the Maui Pony All-Stars, and she was moved from her favorite position to the outfield.
“We actually challenge each other,” Kaupe said. “I think that’s what boosted our adrenaline to strive in baseball and softball. He always tells me he will have more stolen bases than I would — and he did. But, you know, I got more home runs than he did, that’s for sure. . . .
“He just told me that he knew my time would come around sooner or later and that he was proud of me.”
The Pac-12 Conference has three teams ranked in the top six and five in the top 15 of the latest USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll.
“I’m so excited, these great players and great schools, like, I’m so up for it,” Kaupe said. “And I’m pretty sure they can say the same. I’m getting better at choosing the right pitches to hit. I’m surprising myself at learning that I can be a better teammate, even if I’m starting or sitting on the bench.”
Baseball used to be her sport of choice, but Kaupe admitted: “I can definitely call myself a softball player now.”
* Robert Collias can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.