Freshmen Motta, Araki contributing to Highlanders' youth movement

Although they grew up in the neighboring towns of Mililani and Wahiawa, Maiah Motta and Gianna "Gigi" Araki never really knew each other.

At least, not until the pair of 2020 high school graduates teamed up for the UC Riverside softball team.

"Even though we live one town apart, the first time we ever actually met was on the flight to our official visit," said Araki, a Leilehua alumna.

Motta, a Kamehameha alum, said there's some truth to that.

"We definitely probably played club ball against each other and I played with a lot of her school friends and vice-versa," Motta said. "I've always heard of Gigi and I knew who Gigi was when they said, ‘Oh, Gigi is also committed to UCR,' but we just never got the chance to meet but now we have, thanks to UCR and now we're friends and closer because of it."

Now the pair are nearly inseparable as freshmen for the Highlanders, who are in town for a three-game Big West Conference series against the University of Hawaii this weekend.

"Everyone is super excited to go to Hawaii," Araki said in a video call Tuesday, two days before her team is set to arrive in Honolulu.

Araki, a Leilehua alumna from Wahiawa, and Motta, a Kamehameha graduate from Mililani, have been in the thick of a youth movement of sorts at UC Riverside. The duo are just two of the 11 freshmen or sophomores that make up the majority of the team's 15-player roster.

That has translated to a lot of playing time for both local products in their first year of college ball.

"The opportunity has just been amazing," said Motta, who has started all 21 games this season.

Motta, who has batted anywhere from third to seventh in the lineup for the Highlanders (3-18), has made 16 of those starts in left field but has also played right field, catcher and served as the designated hitter.

Araki, meanwhile, has started 18 of the 20 games she has appeared in, all at first base. She's battled in the fifth through nine holes and has recently settled into the eight-spot, right behind Motta in the card.

While wins have been hard to come by — UCR lost its first eight games of the season and has dropped its last six coming into this UH series — there is much optimism inside the program.

"When you're looking at the paper it's really hard to see past the losses sometimes," said Highlanders' fifth-year coach Nikki Palmer, who led the program to its first postseason appearance in her 2018.

"It's just not something that we are used to and is our standard here, but this year we're going to learn more than we ever have and we are seeing a lot of small victories in a lot of different ways and the youth of our program is something that is a huge win (because) our young people are getting more time, more reps, more game experience than they would, which will build us up faster for the future," Palmer said. "So I anticipate the acceleration of all the young players' careers this year and moving forward, you can already see it happening."

The learning curve for Palmer's young squad has been a steep one, to say the least. There were a mere 15 days of practice allotted before the first game of the year — and for a lot of her players, the first one of their collegiate softball careers.

"That's just crazy," she laughed. "So having to coach base running in the middle of a game — it's just not how we normally do things — and so the intelligence level of this young team, the adaptability, the coach-ability, and just the raw talent is able to kind of get the ball rolling faster and so albeit, it's not as fast as we want it to be because it's not ending in the Ws that everybody wants, it's super, super positive for the future and it's going to serve us really well in the next couple of years, so I'm excited about that."

Palmer has maintained a positive approach despite her team's growing pains and her players have followed her lead.

"Like coach touched upon we're really focusing on small victories, so while the overall result may not be what we want, we definitely see growth," Motta reiterated. "Every single weekend we're getting better, every single week, with every pitch, with every practice. We're really focusing on that small growth, individually and as a team and just from where we started this season, it's been tremendous growth from everybody."

Like Motta, Araki echoed the sentiments of her coach and reaffirmed the team's commitment to the long-term plans.

"Especially with the (limited) amount of time that we've had to train as a team, we weren't expecting any results to come fast. A big team saying we have is that results will come on its own time," Araki said.

The Highlanders sit in a tie with CSUN for eighth place in the Big West standings, but are hopeful for what the second half of the conference schedule has in store after a promising series at UC Davis last week. Although her team was swept by the Aggies, Palmer's squad was in all three games (two of them went into extra innings).

UCR lost the three games at Davis by a combined four runs. In Saturday's second game of a doubleheader, Araki hit her first career home run, a two-run shot over the fence in left field, to give her team a 4-2 lead in the top of the seventh inning.

"I completely blacked out, in all honesty," Araki admitted. "The only thing I remember is before I got up to bat, I got a whole bunch of encouraging words from my teammates — because that's what they always do before I go up — I got in the box, I blacked out, I was running the bases and then I look at my teammates, I look at my coach and everyone's screaming."

Motta, who was in the dugout at the time of Araki's blast, recalls the play from the opposite perspective.

"People were close to tears. It was just really well-deserved, well-earned, a great hit on Gigi's part and as a whole team we were all, like she said, very supportive and encouraging and it was awesome to be in the dugout to see that," Motta recalled. "The moment off the bat, we knew it was gone."

Ultimately, UCR was unable to hold on to the lead and fell in eight innings, 7-6. The teams went to extras again the very next day, with Davis pulling out a 2-1 win in nine innings in the series finale. In the loss, however, Motta recorded the first 4-for-4 day by a UCR freshman since at least 2012.

"It felt really good but I just owe it all to my team and to my coaches. They push me every single day and every single practice to be better and I'm surrounded by a lineup — one through nine — of just hard-hitters and people that I know I can count on, that even if the results don't come, they will pick-up the slack and vice-versa," said Motta, who also recorded her second double of the year Sunday.

"They push me to be better and they give us the confidence we need with their words of encouragement and their support and their cheering, so it's really good," she added.

Motta raised her batting average to .219 with her perfect day at the plate. No one was happier for her than Araki.

"Everyone passes the bat and everyone's energy just moves forward and Maiah had a great day, which made me want to have a great day as well. I was so happy for her to see her just doing her thing, it was so amazing," Araki said.

Palmer was pleased to see both players experience some little victories over the weekend.

"With each player, just the try, the effort, the hard work is always at a hundred. It's never that anybody is not putting in their all so it's so nice to see when that can come together, and yeah, we came up short three times and twice just kind of run out of time, but it's such a great experience for our young squad and you can see when we get into those moments and we're putting ourselves in positions to win consistently and we're getting to that point and then we just come up short in a couple of different areas — and a lot of that has to do with just not having enough time to put that experience into play, tighten a couple things up — but each time we get into those situations we're getting a little bit farther, a little bit farther, a little bit farther, so we're excited," Palmer said.

The tight games against Davis certainly had a different feel than the previous weekend's series against Cal State Fullerton, which swept its three-game series against UCR and won each game by eight-or-more runs.

"I mean, I just have to talk about our fight. That was the most fight we've shown," Motta said of the series against the Aggies. "It doesn't happen without everybody giving their all and as we're growing and continuing on, we're going to come out on top just because we keep growing every single weekend and putting in our all and our hard work that results will come and I'm just real proud of the team for sticking through extra innings and we're going to take this momentum and I'm very excited to see the future and upcoming weekends."

Surely, both players — along with a lot of their teammates — have had this weekend's series against the Rainbow Wahine circled on their calendars.

"We have a lot of people here that are super excited because it's going to be their first time on the island and they just want the experience, (but) for me and Maiah, we're just excited to be home," Araki said.

There won't be a whole lot of free time, however, on this trip. The Highlanders are keeping a tight schedule while in the 50th state; they arrive Thursday morning and depart for California Saturday night.

"Yeah, unfortunately," Palmer lamented. "We usually do get a little bit of time to kind of pop around — we'll still get our local eats, don't worry, we'll get that plate lunch while we're there — but it's a quick trip, quick turnaround."

With no fan attendance for any UH sporting events this spring, that means no family and friends in the stands of Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium for either Araki or Motta.

"I mean, we wish there were fans and that our families could come watch, but definitely with COVID and all the safety precautions, we're just so glad that they're trying to keep everyone safe because that's the main thing, that everyone is safe. So it'll be different, but it'll still be fun; we'll still have our UCR softball team around us and everything," Motta said.

Both players have played in RWSS a number of times over the years, mostly in state tournament games, but it'll be the first time either faces off against the hometown team.

"I think it's really cool because every day we represent Hawaii because that's where we're from and our high schools and everything, but it's going to be fun to come home and represent UCR," Motta added.

And to be sure, Palmer is glad that the pair represent UCR.

"We love having these two. They're really special and both of them extremely talented," said Palmer, who has had coached a number of players from Hawaii at stints at Utah State, Weber State and Utah Valley.

"These two are just the epitome of what it means to be a Hawaiian softball player: work hard, take good care of people, treat their teammates like family — just everything you'd want as a coach," she added. "I wish I had a hundred of ‘em."

Motta and Araki have both acclimated themselves well to their new teammates and leaned on them, as well as one another, to get through some homesickness during the fall semester.

"This team is all about family, so it's not like we don't notice that we're away from home, but it's a lot easier when family is just as big of a value here as it is at home and the girls here have become sisters to us and they keep us occupied," Motta expressed. "I mean, we never feel lonely because we always have each other."

In their high school days, both players were standouts for their teams. As a freshman in 2017, Motta earned Second Team All-Hawaii honors as a third baseman. Araki's breakout year came the following season, when she was named All-Hawaii Division I Player of the Year as a sophomore first baseman and helped the Mules win the state championship.

"For me, once a Mule, always a Mule," Araki stated. "I'm sure almost every single school does this, but everything revolves around your community and your family because all you have is each other."

Motta reflected upon her time at Kamehameha fondly as well.

"High school was great and everything and I just am so glad that a lot of the values are the same — that love that you share for your teammates and everybody — it's transferred right over and made the transition to college really easy, so it's been great," Motta said. "We're really grateful for this experience and this opportunity, but Hawaii is always our home and we're just so proud to be from there and proud to be Hawaiian and just the family aspect of it all and we're so lucky that that's here at UCR, too."

Hawaii and UC Riverside open their series Friday at 6 p.m. and will play a doubleheader starting at 2 p.m. Saturday. Fan attendance at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium is not permitted. Friday's game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Radio AM 1500.

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].

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