The world changed a year ago, but the hope in Wendell Au never wavered.
The Leilehua softball coach saw a season disappear, and his travel team’s annual summer plans were no more. This spring, as the Oahu Interscholastic Association softball season gears up, Au is taking full measures to provide a safe environment for a program that is a perennial state-championship contender.
The spring season of 2021 was no guarantee, he noted, but there was a determination by decision makers to avoid a second cancelled spring season in a row.
“They were iffy. They had a double meeting for this. An earlier meeting (two weeks ago), then they finally pulled the trigger after (last week’s) meeting,” Au said. “A lot of legalities. I guess everyone in this whole thing is afraid of being sued. Too many what ifs, but we cannot live like that too. I get it. This thing is not going to disappear soon.”
Over time, he witnessed the difference between caution and recklessness, safety and foolishness.
“I travel for my work and I’ve been to places that are more lax. Some are very scary, but I took my own personal precautions and used a mask. You cannot tell me that this thing varies from place to place. Being cautious is way better than being ignorant,” said Au, who guided the Mules to the 2018 Division I state championship.
The tangible differences are going to be obvious to everyone at practice and games.
“I’m going to put x’s on my benches. My athletic director (Nolan Tokuda) has been super good about getting prepared. We never actually had a sink on the field. He gave me a fogger to spray down everything. A lot of support coming from him. We’re going to make sure it’s manageable and safe for everybody,” Au said.
There’s an added bonus within his staff.
“I’m blessed. Most of my coaches are in first-responder type jobs. I’m pretty sure most of us have taken our vaccinations. That’s something,” he said.
Oahu’s COVID-19 numbers declined in February and plateaued in the first two weeks of March.
“I’ve seen different sports out there. I’ve watched some games and people have been pretty smart. Before the (second) big shutdown, I was really impressed with club softball, baseball. They had a system down. It’s not that people will be educated on this reopening. They had good measures in place. People are used to the mask,” he said.
The Mules began conditioning workouts on Monday, the first day of spring break.
“We’ve been blended, so we get to start, could’ve started as soon as the 8th. I wasn’t ready and the weather wasn’t helpful, either. There were still a lot of unanswered questions before I decide to take on these new challenges,” Au said. “The kids will trying to get back into some kind of shape mentally and physically.
What Leilehua lost with the cancellation of 2020 spring season, they gain in another way.
“I think we counted something like 13 returnees. I only had two starting seniors, four total in 2020. This year I only have two seniors,” he said.
The strange new world has also created a multi-universe of sorts in the lives of players who used to focus mostly on school and sports.
“I’ve never had this before, but I’ve got kids texting and emailing me, ‘What’s my schedule going to be because I have to let my employer know.’ I’ve been in touch with a lot of college coaches. It’s a different landscape now. Some 2021 grads have taken GEDs so they can start college. A whole lot of things have changed. Recruitment, everybody’s hot and heavy and about getting their kids a look, but scholarships aren’t there because of the (COVID year) redshirts,” Au noted.
With a decline in scholarship offers nationally, sitting out a year before college is an option. Au prefers another one.
“The best is if you can find a good JC. That was never a big thing for softball, but now more than ever, if you can get everything paid for, you’re better off with that route. You want to prove to coaches at the next level that you’re college tested, meaning you moved away from home, lived away in a dorm, and did well,” he said.
Au draws a line between major men’s sports and women’s sports.
“Basketball and football are different. It’s about going pro. Female sports, there’s the Olympics, but really it’s about getting your college paid for. I could be wrong. Ultimately you want to play power 5, but at the beginning, aside from Jocelyn Alo, we have not produced a blue-chipper. I’m pretty sure they had to pay to go to school until they produce,” he said.
A case in point: Mikela Manewa, a former Kapolei standout.
“She went to Southern Nevada, Oregon State, then became a pro softball player. She played at every level. I’m pretty sure some of the top players have done that, too,” Au said.
College cost is part of the landscape in softball.
“With scholarships being tied up, it’s really something to think about. Say you got the goods to play at Washington, but are you willing to take on a loan of $50,000. Say you put up the same gaudy numbers at a JC, most big colleges are willing in a choice between a freshman coming out of high school or a sophomore playing at a JC in Arizona, they’ll take the sophomore. Grades lined up. Ability measured.”
Au is a willing participant in a tough challenge.
“I know everyone’s heart is in the place of, we got to get these kids out playing. The logistics of everything is really, really hard. It’s one thing to execute games and scheduling on such short notice. Then you throw in the additional thing of safety, COVID protocols. It takes already a challenging process and adds a little more complication,” he said.
Au mentioned a common concern in states that played through fall and winter seasons: spectator gathering that violate social distancing protocol.
“Safety is first and foremost, 100 percent. Any spread of anything is grounds to stop everything. That’s why the word got to get out. Foot stomp it with the kids. The clear transparency from our part, but more so understanding from parents. We’ve got to tell them there are games, but they can’t come and watch. I hope they have the compassion and everything. That’s just the way it is right now. But this is what we can do,” he said.
The regular season will be quick if it follows the plan for baseball. After a few weeks of conditioning, there will be only a few more weeks of game play, and then it will be over. No playoffs. No state tournament. There is very little room for error.
“Them making this progress to start us is good. At this point, for most coaches I’ve spoken to at different levels, everybody’s concern is the mental side of the student-athletes, not the hurry-up-and-we’ve-got-to-play. This pause that we had, everything got us grounded to the core of what it is and what it’s about. Having these young men and women being student-athletes first and foremost, and just gain something in life,” Au said.
“We feel bad for the seniors who graduated, especially last spring, and now we have a class of 2021. If this does not take off, we lose two years. My colleagues at different schools, that’s our biggest thing. We want to insure that our players have their senior year. You want to send them off right.”
Sacrificing a social life means avoiding scenarios that aren’t 100-percent safe for players and coaches. Keeping the circle small.
“This is going to show your true dedication to your team and teammates. You have to make that sacrifice so we can get through this. It goes from meeting after meeting after meeting. As it trickles down, then we start shaping what we’ve got to do. Getting the word out is key,’ Au said.
In a normal, pre-COVID season, there would be oodles of preseason tournaments and interleague games. Traveling off island. There will likely be no preseason games for softball.
“I could be selfish, but the OIA West is so strong. All I care about is creating that sense of competition. Makes no sense to take all this risk, logistically and the time, to go out and wing it. There’s got to be some sort of format. It’s just games. With all the things we have to have in place, I see clubs playing. I see people playing softball, period.”
Crunching conditioning into a short preseason is safer without extra games,” Au added.
“ILH started already. To me, it’s a safety concern. Sometimes they don’t know what shape they’re in. They might push too hard when they’re competing against another team,” he said. “The challenges we face, it’s a different demographic from the ILH. There’s more challenges. We face things that I highly doubt the private schools face. Our student-athletes already face a different challenge playing for their school. Our athletes pull off Campbell and Mililani, Kapolei. We put up a great fight.”
Testing is a valuable tool well used at the collegiate level. Some private schools used it and some did not during winter exhibition and regular-season competition.
“If everybody’s got to get tested, most likely we’ll drop down in numbers. If I could have someone test our team I would be 100-percent for it,” Au said.
Even the logistics of getting to a testing site can be daunting.
“I have some players, they make their way to the field themselves. They don’t have a good support system. It would be easy for me and my daughter, but what about my seven players who can’t do that,” Au asked.
“If we can just play OIA, so be it. The biggest thing is I need to get these kids out and about, into some sort of new normal.”