ILH champion MPI feeling grateful

They played six times. Just about every game was close.

Four times, the Mid-Pacific Owls got past the Punahou Buffanblu.

Host Mid-Pacific rallied to win their first meeting, 3-2, on Mar. 2. Punahou won the second matchup 6-5, at MPI on Mar. 18. The Owls won their third meeting, 10-3, at Hans L’Orange Park on Apr. 1. Then came the playoffs. Punahou won 7-2 at CORP on Apr. 19, but MPI won 5-4 on Apr. 23, setting up Tuesday’s tourney title game.

With Tuesday’s 3-2 win, the Owls clinched the ILH playoff tourney title and earned the league championship. Punahou, a late bloomer that peaked in the latter half of the season, will face regular-season runner-up Saint Louis on Thursday. The winner of the 6:30 p.m. matchup at Hans L’Orange Park will claim the league’s second state-tournament berth.

“If Punahou wins that game, they deserve to be at states,” MPI coach Dunn Muramaru said. They’re probably the most dangerous team around.”

Punahou coach Keenan Sue was flattered.

“That means a lot coming from Dunn. I have the utmost respect for him and his players. They do things the right way. What’s best about them is they prepare properly. Every day at practice, every cut is like they’re playing for the ILH championship,” he said.

A taste of victory in the merciless ILH is good, but winning the title again was never taken for granted by the Owls.

“Honestly, it means a lot. The ILH every year is anyone’s game,” said center fielder-pitcher Alex Oley (1-for-2, double, RBI). “You work hard, but you’re not entitled to anything. I’m glad for our team, coaches and our fans. We get a lot of support. Our bench players, who push us every day at practice.”

Every team is a little different, even from one season to the next, but this year’s Owls had Muramaru in a slightly lighter place. Still pounding out the infield-practice ground balls, probably in better shape than any coach his age or even 20 years younger. And quite appreciative.

“I feel pretty good, I guess. I feel better than if we had lost,” he said after the game after being congratulated by former MPI Athletic Director (and recently retired ILH Executive Director) Don Botelho.

There was a smile or two on Muramaru’s face. And a lot of relief.

It was another team effort, a near-error free performance defensively, and a versatile afternoon by shortstop-pitcher Jacob Maekawa. He stepped in for Ethan Fujikami (4 2/3 innings, one walk, four hits) to put a lid on the visiting Buffanblu, who nearly boiled over in the seventh. Punahou loaded the bases on a pinch-hit HBP, pinch-hit single and a walk. Maekawa got Noah Goss to pop out for the final out.

“You can leave the bases loaded as long as they don’t score,” Muramaru said.

By winning the league, No. 1-ranked Mid-Pacific may have sealed the top seed in the state tournament (May 4-7) at Iron Maehara Stadium in Wailuku. Taking the league crown has already secured a first-round bye.

“Coach always says he’d rather play three games than four. We’ll just come out firing and, hopefully, things fall our way,” Oley added.

Maekawa, who was the winning pitcher and also went 1-for-2 at the plate with credit for a run scored, wasn’t quite in celebratory mode after the game.

“We had a lot of mental lapses and lost focus,” the senior said. “Just the little things. We need to tighten up our execution. There’s always room for improvement, especially going to states.”


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