No place like home for Kaupe, Millwood

For both Nawai Kaupe and Dallas Millwood, there truly is no place like home.

Each knows it all too well.

Kaupe, who graduated from Maui High in 2017, and Millwood, a 2018 Kamehameha alumna, were formerly teammates for the Guava Jam Softball Club. Soon enough they'll be reunited on the diamond once again — despite taking circuitous routes there — this time, as Rainbow Wahine.

It's been a long journey to Manoa for both Kaupe and Millwood, who first joined forces for Guava Jam back in 2014. Guava Jam — coached by Dallas's father, James, and Kaupe's uncle, Stan "Bully" Cabanas — is based on Oahu.

"When Nawai played for Guava Jam, since she lived on an outer island, she would stay with either me or (Cabanas) and we got really close from that and over the years we've gotten a lot closer," Dallas Millwood said of their relationship.

Kaupe, whose older brother Branden was a fourth-round draft pick of the New York Mets in the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft, was still relatively new to the sport of softball at the time.

"I didn't really get into softball until my freshman year of high school actually. I was always playing baseball growing up and then I ended up playing for Hawaiian Style (softball club) in the beginning, just to see what it was like, and then I ended up playing for Guava Jam when I got more serious with my softball career; I would stay there (on Oahu) for the summer and take turns sleeping over at the Millwood's or at uncle Bully's," Kaupe said.

It didn't take long for the wins to start piling up. Among the successes they shared in was a monumental win at the ASA Champions Cup in Irvine, Calif. in July of 2014. Guava Jam beat out nearly a hundred other teams to capture the 16-and-under title, the first team from Hawaii to take home a championship from the elite showcase event.

Both players also flourished at the high school level. In fact, Kaupe's Maui High team and Millwood's Kamehameha club nearly faced off in the semifinals of the 2017 Division I state championships, if not for the Sabers' 7-6 loss to top-seeded Mililani in the quarterfinal round. Both went on to earn All-Hawaii first team distinction that season.

After graduating from high school the following spring, Kaupe took her talents to the Pacific Northwest and the University of Washington.

"Long story short, UH-Manoa was actually my first (scholarship) offer and then it just led to other offers, but Washington was obviously my first pick, they were one of the top schools in the nation," said Kaupe. "When I went there for freshman year, I experienced so much and grew so much and within that year we were top two (nationally) at the time."

However, Kaupe found herself behind a First Team All-American at shortstop in Sis Bates, a US National Team member. After batting .246 (16 for 41) as a freshman in 2018, Kaupe saw her opportunities diminish as a sophomore, when she hit just .113.

"It was nothing against their program or their culture — I love their culture, I mean, the competitiveness is what got me there in the first place — but I didn't think I grew much as a player individually and it kind of stunted my growth a little bit," Kaupe said. "I kind of felt like I couldn't grow as just myself, it was like I had to grow into somebody else, so that's why I changed my pick."

Although Kaupe sought a transfer, it wasn't predetermined that UH would be her next school. While doing her homework, Kaupe sought the advice of a current Rainbow Wahine in outfielder Bree Soma, another former Guava Jam player.

Kaupe laughs when she recalls the "conversation."

"I just texted her and I was like, ‘uh, what, I should come home or what?' Like, that's all I wrote and it was obviously not a ‘yes' or ‘no' question, but moreso ‘why,' " Kaupe recalled. "Bree just was pretty much encouraging me to come home because she wanted me to play with her, basically that's how it went, but she also supported whatever decision that I would have made."

Meanwhile, Millwood, who signed with Nevada-Reno out of high school, was on a tear for the Wolf Pack. The first baseman hit .284 with eight home runs and 52 RBIs to earn All-Mountain West second team honors as a freshman.

Still, something didn't quite sit well with her.

"It was just always so sad because I'd grow up and my whole family comes to all my games, whether it's at Kamehameha or with Guava Jam, and I go to UNR and my dad would come to all my home games, but my mom came to maybe two games and my (three) sisters didn't get to come to anything; it's just different playing in front of family," Millwood said. "I have more of a drive I feel when I play in front of them, because I play for them."

It took nearly three semesters of being away from home for her to realize that what she thought she desired, wasn't what she needed after all.

"It was something that I always wanted to do when I was younger," said Millwood, whose eldest sister, Jamie, played collegiately at Stanford.

"My older sister went and just going on college visits with either Guava Jam or my dad has made me want to go to the mainland."

Dallas Millwood is flanked by fellow Kamehameha graduates in Kalamaku Kuewa (L) and Kalani Kamakawiwoole (R) after the University of Hawaii football team’s 54-3 win over Nevada at Reno’s Mackay Stadium on Sept. 28, 2019. courtesy James Millwood    Purchase image

But everything changed for her on Sept. 28, 2019.

"There was a UH-UNR football game at UNR that I went to last fall and that's when I knew that I wanted to come home and play for Hawaii and represent home," Millwood said. "I talked to some UH football boys, I was dressed head to toe in UH colors, waving the Hawaiian flag and just seeing people playing for their home, that made me want to come home and play for Hawaii; it was a huge feeling of pride."

It was quite the reversal from just a few years ago, when Millwood drew heavy interest from the hometown Rainbow Wahine and longtime coach Bob Coolen.

"I told coach Bob that I wanted to go away; I didn't want to stay home," Millwood recalled.

"It was funny because my whole thing was ‘I wanna go away for college, I wanna go to the mainland, I don't wanna stay home, I want to experience what it's like out there by myself,' and then I put my name in the (NCAA) transfer portal and I called him and told him that I wanna come home. He asked me what I wanna do, do I wanna go to another mainland school? I was like, ‘no, I wanna come home,' and he was like, ‘perfect, let's get that started."

The other half of that decision, of course, was to notify Wolf Pack coach Josh Taylor of her intentions.

"That was hard, especially because that was the first and only college that I committed to and I know coach T is a great person, so it was heartbreaking having to tell him that I wanted to come home because he treated us as if we were his daughters, so having that conversation with him was very rough, but I mean, I'm happy that I decided to come home," Millwood said.

Before she finalized her choice, Millwood naturally reached out to both Kaupe and Soma, as well as her former teammate at Kamehameha in Kama Dung, who experienced a transfer herself when she went from Fresno State to Cal-Berkeley, where she finished out her collegiate pitching career.

"Nawai was one of the people who really helped me with my decision to come back because we both talked about how nowhere is like Hawaii and just going through playing in the mainland and since she did it first then came home, it was really good to talk to her about her experience playing in the mainland versus coming home and playing for Hawaii," Millwood said.

"She was very helpful because she knows exactly what it was like, so any question that I had she could answer it because she just lived through it the year right before me. She was super honest with me about everything, which helped me because the way she was feeling was the way I was also feeling and just coming back home, I think was the most important thing for both of us and that's something I really, really wanted."

Kaupe also recalled that exchange she had with Millwood.

"In my text to her, I sent out a very heart-warming, but also very straight forward message about how things are at UH-Manoa and so I told her that it's a lot different from how the mainland teaches the sport, but at the same time, if you feel comfortable, if you feel like you should come home, then definitely, you should," Kaupe explained. "On the inside I definitely wanted her to come — this is the most Hawaii girls that we've had on the UH-Manoa team — and I was ecstatic that she wanted to come home, but at the same time, I still wanted her to be for sure that she wanted to come back and if she didn't and felt like going somewhere else, then that's okay, but if she didn't feel that spark of any other school, then come home."

By the time that Millwood had finalized her transfer plans, however, it was mere days before the start of UH's season and did not allow for enough time to complete the necessary paperwork for her to be eligible to play this season. But she wasn't ever very far from the team, often assisting UH's media relations department with tasks in the press box during games.

Despite being relegated to a spectator during the (abbreviated) 2020 season, Millwood has zero complaints.

"It's the best," she said. "I'm surrounded by family."

Among the highlights was getting to see her former Guava Jam teammate, Kaupe, make an immediate impact for the Rainbow Wahine. Kaupe started all 24 games at shortstop and batting .347 with a team-high 25 hits and seven homers, tied for the team lead.

Kaupe recalled her very first game as a Rainbow Wahine — and the first time she played a game at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium since her senior year at Maui High — with great detail.

"I didn't think I would ever feel nervous in my life playing the sport I've been doing for what, twenty-one years now between baseball and softball," she said.

"I guess it was just the adrenaline and the motivation all hyping up in my brain and in my feet, but I actually loved it and I love it till this day and I can't wait to go back once this COVID settles down. I' m just so thankful and grateful of being home and really representing home, having ‘HAWAII' on my chest is one of the best feelings ever; I don't ever regret making my decision to come home."

Still, Kaupe understands that leaving Hawaii was something she had to do in order to fully appreciate it.

"Oh, most definitely. I don't regret my decision of going to Washington in the first place; I love the people, I love the coaching, I love it there, but I didn't see myself contributing as much as they say they think I did," Kaupe said of the Huskies' coaching staff.

"They kept reminding me how important I am and how I matter, but physically I couldn't really understand my belonging on the team and coming back home, I definitely feel more belonging, but it was definitely one of the hardest decisions I've had to make because I'm super competitive."

Upon her return, however, Kaupe said that in her own mind she fought the stigma of "coming back home because things didn't work out." Ultimately, she had to change her thinking.

"I just thought that people were gonna be like, ‘ah, Nawai came back home,' you know? But no, everybody was excited, like, ‘now I can go watch Nawai,' and that's just so fulfilling for me," she said. "It's exciting for me to hear how they're excited. It's hard for me to tell people the truth of why I came home, like the hard core truth, but at the same time, they even changed their mindset and now it's like they're the ones saying, ‘I wanna play for UH-Manoa now,' and dang, that is so cool … I just can't wait and as much as I'm excited for everyone to be back on the field, I'm more excited for the girls growing up in Hawaii playing softball."

Millwood, for one, shares in Kaupe's excitement for what the future holds.

"I think it's gonna be very exciting, very interesting, because the way that local girls are, we're just different and when we all play together, we're gonna be very good. I have high expectations for this season — when we get a season," Millwood chuckled.

The pair are among 10 local products on the Rainbow Wahine roster, in addition to Soma (Maryknoll '16), Merilis "Mama" Rivera (Mililani '17), Laakea Bertulfo (Kamehameha '17), Sammie Ofoia (Saint Francis '18), Kawai Mielke (Punahou '18), Maya Nakamura (Roosevelt '19), Cira Bartolotti (Kapolei '19) and Kaena Keliinoi (Saint Francis '19).

"It's a lot of pride because even when I look back at UNR, the Reno girls were just so big on ‘this is our home and we get to play in front of our family every time,' so I kind of wish I stayed home and knew from the start that the pride playing for your own state feels better than when you're playing for your own school, like Kamehameha," Millwood said. "That pride that we had when we played high school ball was top tier and now that we're playing for the whole state of Hawaii, that's just unbelievable to me and an amazing honor to represent home."

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].

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