Post-game: Great tourney, classic finish

Some post-tourney thoughts. Yes, it does feel a little anticlimactic, thinking back to games that were almost a week ago. But this was one of the best state tourneys in recent memory.

• Year of the Control Freaks. That’s right, we had a healthy supply of elite pitchers who relied on finesse more than sheer power. Whether it was Kian Kurokawa (Hilo), Trey Saito (Mid-Pacific) or, arguably, the surprise of the tourney, Mililani pitcher Kanoa Hironaka, fans at Iron Maehara Stadium and Murakami Stadium were treated to some of the most skilled pitching we’ve seen in some time.

That doesn’t even factor in some terrific first-round efforts by position players who were maneuvered into place on the mound by coaches crafting strategies. Kevin Yee of Waiakea and Corey Ishigo of Kailua did what they could to position their teams for potential runs to the final. Yee inserted shortstop Alika Guillermo, who gave the Warriors six very good innings. Ishigo turned to infielder Wyatt Dalessio, who shut out ‘Iolani with a two-hitter.

That first day also included a solid pitching effort by ‘Iolani’s Bronson Ichimura and Waipahu’s Dylan Sugimoto. Ichimura gave up just two runs in defeat. Sugimoto had a 1-0 lead entering the bottom of the seventh when Mililani scored two unearned runs.

His counterpart, Cole Nakachi, pitched four innings and Cristian Namoca took over to shut out the Marauders the rest of the way.

Then came Kurokawa’s six-hit shutout, featuring some stunning defensive work by shortstop Micah Kaaukai, in a win over Kailua.

Also on that day, Saito made his first appearance in the tourney, going seven innings for a three-hitter against Waiakea. Coupled with Tuesday’s complete-game win over Mililani for the title, Saito pitched 14 innings, gave up two runs, 11 hits, struck out four and walked six. That’s an ERA of 1.00, pitching to contact and relying on a stellar Owls defense that didn’t commit an error in three tournament games.

There was the hard-luck performance of Maui’s Samuel Sutton, who gave up just one earned run and three hits in a 5-1 loss to Campbell. Five Maui errors crushed the possibilities for the MIL runners-up.

Then there was Hironaka, who baffled top-seed Baldwin on that Thursday. His slider mesmerized the Bears, who managed just four hits and lost to the Cinderella Trojans 5-1.

The fine pitching continued in the semifinals on Friday. MPI third baseman Brent Sakurai spun a four-hitter against Campbell, outdueling Ian Kahaloa in a 2-1 victory. Six K’s, no walks, 70 pitches — possibly the most efficient line of the tourney. Not bad for a regular third baseman.

Then came the rainout on Saturday, the flights home to Oahu and Tuesday’s finale. Hironaka was en fuego again with a three-hitter through six innings. He was just three outs from delivering a miracle championship to Millville. Between him and Saito, he had thrown the more dominant game. Saito was simply consistent and persistent, sticking to his game plan, inducing the Trojans into first-pitch swings.

It all unraveled in the seventh, of course, with Hirokawa’s bumble on a sacrifice bunt at the heart of it. But make no mistake about it: he pitched a masterful game, as Marcus Doi and Bryce Asao said after the game.

Doi, who had been hitless until spanking his clutch two-run single in the seventh, certainly wasn’t kidding about Hironaka’s amazing tournament. Hironaka, like Saito, gave up just two earned runs in 14 innings.

But Doi didn’t have much to say after that. He just cradled the state-championship tourney. The words wouldn’t come out anymore. The tears certainly did. It was a journey worth traveling.

• Define luck. Former HHSAA Executive Director Keith Amemiya felt for his successor, Chris Chun, when the title game of the D-I baseball state tourney had to be postponed due to rain. That was in Chun’s second year in the position, and though it created some inconvenience for athletic directors, coaches, players and fans, the tourney was on Oahu that week. There wasn’t a whole lot of complexity to rescheduling the game.

This time, though, it was simply a disaster dealing with travel plans and logistics with the tourney on Maui, then Oahu, right?

Not really. The Valley Isle supported the two MIL teams in the tourney, Maui and Baldwin. And once both were out of the picture, attendance for Saturday’s title game between MPI and Mililani would be so-so. Fans flying from Oahu plus hardcore fans from Maui. Not the best setup for a sellout, but that’s just how it is.

Unless it rains. With the title game moved back to Oahu, the HHSAA got a nice crowd of 2,427 at Murakami Stadium. With tickets at roughly $5 (high school students) to $7 (adults), the gate revenue — for a game, site and date that did not exist just a few days earlier – was a nice boon for the Association. Maybe $14,000 or so, give or take costs for ushers and cleanup, etc.

So yes, Chun the chief has dealt with his share of logistics challenges. But at least in this scenario, the rainout proved to be wonderful for MPI and Mililani fans, and what’s good for fans is often great for the HHSAA. Every dollar matters, and a five-figure addition to the ledger can’t hurt.

• Time to wrap up for now, but a final note. MPI’s staff, led by Dunn Muramaru, did a remarkable job. It’s not unique that this group of Owls works hard year-round, taking batting cage swings on every Sunday even during the varsity season. But it’s simply pleasing to see a team so fundamentally sound, so grounded (no pun intended) by the simplicity of repetition. Getting young athletes to work hard is tough enough a challenge for any coaching staff. But getting them to buy in and work the way the Owls do is a true feat.

Mililani’s staff, led by Mark Hirayama, was also impressive. How did they extract peak performance from a team that had its share of struggle during the regular season? Hirayama has his own, low-key style of coaching. In a way, it’s similar to Muramaru’s approach.

I’d say the two head coaches say more with their level of expectation than with words alone. Or volume. It’s something to see, and perhaps something a lot of coaches, regardless of sport, can pick up on.

More later today. Brain is fried, dinner has been eaten and it’s time to moemoe.

—Paul Honda


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