To be the best, the Leilehua Mules had to evolve into more than just a lineup of sluggers.
They always had the tools. On this night, in a battle of heavyweight sluggers, Leilehua proved that they were ready and willing to put all their weapons into use. Defense. Pitching. Small ball and, of course, big ball with grand slams by Gianna Araki and winning pitcher Kaena Nistal in a resounding 14-4 win over Punahou in the final of the DataHouse/HHSAA Division I Softball State Championships on Friday night.
The bombshell effect of a first state softball title will be lasting for the green and gold team from Wahiawa. Yet, their performance in the regular season — tied for first in the haywire OIA West with a 9-3 mark — was buoyed for a time with a No. 1 ranking in the Star-Advertiser Softball Top 10. The campaign ended with excellence, outplaying a hot Punahou team that was much like Leilehua.
Leilehua 12, Baldwin 1 (opening round)
Leilehua 10, Maryknoll 5 (quarterfinal)
Leilehua 13, Mililani 0 (semifinal)
Leilehua 14, Punahou 4 (final)
That’s a TKO win over the Maui Interscholastic League champion (Baldwin). A victory over the Interscholastic League of Honolulu champion (Maryknoll). Another TKO against an OIA West rival, and arguably the hottest team in the state tourney (Mililani). Then a knockout of ILH champion Punahou, which had also been scorching hot. All by an aggregate score of 49-10.
“I feel like we really deserved this because we worked hard and everyone didn’t believe in us. But we were always there for each other and our coaches really care about us,” said Nistal, who struck out five and allowed two hits, and three runs, in 3 2/3 crucial innings on the mound after starter Kamryn Kamakaiwi suffered and ankle injury. “I just had to make pitches for my team. We all got each other’s backs.”
Leilehua finished the year 17-6 overall, including 11-5 against Top 10 opponents.
“We were poised as a community and a team to actually be successful,” said Wendell Au, a first-year head coach. “It’s a well-balanced team and a lot of talent, but, you know, we just had to hold it on the skills and be a little more disciplined, and that’s the results right there.”
Nistal’s versatility was a luxury that became a necessity. She hadn’t pitched since April 27, but won two games in relief of Kamakaiwi this week. At the plate, she had just one hit against Punahou, but again, timing was everything. Her grand slam opened the lead from five runs to 11-2 in the bottom of the fourth.
“I didn’t even know that all the runners were on base. I was just looking to get a base hit,” said Nistal, who turned on an inside pitch. “When I hit the ball, I didn’t think it was going over. I thought it was going to hit the fence and come back. I was surprised because all my other at-bats, I didn’t do so much on.”
Defense? The Mules were error free.
“I’m really happy. I’m really proud of my team because we worked so hard this season,” third baseman Brandi Leong said. “It feels really good because our goal for this season was to build a foundation for the younger girls in Wahiawa. To be like, ‘I want to go to Leilehua because I want to be a Mule.’ I think we did that today.”
Araki’s grand slam was classic and fundamental. The right-handed swinging hitter drove the ball to right-center, the epitome of a perfect swing on a difficult pitch from Punahou ace Kennedy Ishii.
“So, in my head, ever since I was in the circle, I was thinking base hit, score two. We need runs on the board. Nothing big, line drives will get our runs in,” Araki said. “I knew I need to get on base and score some runs. That’s all I was thinking. Next thing, you know, contact off the ball, I’m gone. It was unexpected. It just went all the way. It was inside all the way. I tried to hit it center all the way.”
It was her seventh home run of the year.
Leilehua’s roll of four wins in four days capped one of the most remarkable state-tournament performances in recent history. Leilehua shared first place with Campbell in the OIA West, then fell in the league semifinals against Roosevelt. When the Mules routed Baldwin in Tuesday’s opening round, it was a breakthrough of sorts. They’d lost last year in the first round. But would the program that had never won a state softball title bring the same potency on championship night?
A packed house at Rainbow Wahine Softball Stadium witnessed something that few teams could do against the talented Buffanblu. Leilehua not only outslugged Punahou’s blue bombers, the Mules also ruled the base paths, used their small-ball bunting prowess to tack on insurance runs, and turned to Nistal, then Alyssa Abe — their trifecta of pitching gems.
Mule Nation never wavered. Kamakaiwi’s southpaw delivery and superb movement had success in that first inning. She was, at least on paper, the ideal matchup for Leilehua against Punahou’s swarm of lefty swingers — Maya Matsumura, Ishii, D’Asha Saiki, Janell Sato, Kawai Mielke. Instead, Nistal won her second game in the state tourney, walking eight batters along the way, which no coach really wants to see.
“I’m not too sure if walks are preferable, but it’s just a matter of me having faith in my pitchers,” Au said. “And allowing them to fight through. That’s just always been my mentality. Give them a fighting chance.”
Yet, considering what Punahou (12-6) did all season and especially this week — 31 combined runs against powerhouse Kapolei, Lahainaluna and Campbell — walking the Buffanblu proved far more economical than giving them a chance to clout pitches over the plate. Their bombers — Saiki, Akimseu, Sato and Mielke — combined for one extra base hit, a double by Saiki. That foursome drew four walks, but was unable to get the ball out of the infield with the exception of Saiki’s third-inning two-bagger.
It was almost like hypnosis. Whoever crafted the scouting report gets an A-plus. While Nistal’s change-up, which had a lot of screwball action tonight, sometimes baffled Buffanblu hitters, Abe was scintillating at times.
“We all got each other’s backs. We all have different styles of pitch and we know how to work against the batters,” Nistal said. “I throw out my change-up, which is my knuckleball. Sometimes it curves, sometimes it screws.”
In the top of the fifth, Punahou pushed a run across to cut the lead to 11-3 and had the bases loaded. Abe replaced Nistal, walked Ishii with the bases loaded, then got the always-dangerous Saiki on a forceout to end the threat.
Abe struck out the side in the sixth, something that may not have occurred to Punahou’s lineup all season. In fact, it was the hitters 4, 5 and 6, Akimseu, Sato and Mielke.
“Once she got into her groove, there’s no stopping her,” Nistal added. “She’s very humble and she’s a team player.”
Leilehua, using all those bunts and grand slams, ended it 10-run rule style on a two-run single by their No. 9 hitter. Mikayla Pinera battled reliever Akimseu tooth and nail before grounding up the middle to bring Alyssa Asuncion and Jacelyn Kepa‘a home with runs 13 and 14, ending the game by 10-run rule.
With that, Leilehua’s title also meant depriving Punahou of a second state title – the first was in 2003. And, of course, Campbell’s bid for a four-peat came to an end in the semifinals. Leilehua was the perfect team in ’18. Or close to it.
“We do have weaknesses,” Araki said. “We just try not to show it.”