St. Francis had almost every right to claim the league title and the one state-tournament berth.
The defending Interscholastic League of Honolulu Division II champion was just one win away from returning to the state tourney and had to beat a Damien team it beat three times to start the regular season.
Damien’s amazing run to the tourney title, then beating St. Francis twice for the league championship, was textbook and a fairy tale all in one. With Friday’s 2-1, eight-inning victory over the Saints, Damien has reached the Wally Yonamine Foundation/HHSAA baseball state tourney for the first time, and the title run happened to reach the peak of a mountain.
Coach Timo Donahue has climbed the most difficult path before. In 2008, as coach of Waipio, his team lost its first game in the state tournament.
“We were favored,” Donahue recalled.
His son, Christian, was a part of that team that went on a seven-game winning streak to win the title and advance to the national regionals. Christian later played for ‘Iolani and is now at Oregon State.
“One of the dads texted me before the game,” Donahue said. “I didn’t mention it to the kids. I didn’t want to jinx it.”
The early losses to St. Francis — three in a row — didn’t derail the Monarchs’ dream. After those three losses, Damien won its next six against the Saints.
“I said two years ago that this would be our best team in 2017. After the first couple of wins, even the ones we lost, we were right there. We knew if we don’t make mistakes, we win. We hit too good and play defense to not win,” Donahue said.
His younger son, Jordan, is a freshman shortstop who bats third in the lineup. Kayson Kajiwara, a key jack-of-all trades sophomore, plays second base.
“They’ve played together since tee-ball,” Donahue said of his starting middle infielders.
While Kajiwara was invaluable during the tournament, pitching, fielding and hitting in the clutch, senior pitcher Javin Cortez saved his best for the title game. The duel between Cortez and St. Francis ace Jared Yara was an instant classic.
“The extra day (due to rain) might have helped,” Coach Donahue said.
Cortez downplayed his role, even after firing a four-hitter and throwing 107 pitches over eight innings. He struck out four, walked five and hit one batter. Yara went 6 2/3 innings, allowing one run on two hits with five strikeouts, six walks and two hit batters. He also finished with 107 pitches.
“We’re coming strong. It’s not just me. I’m just part of the team,” Cortez said.
“Yara was hitting his spots,” said Jordan Donahue, whose one-out single started Damien on its game-winning sequence in the bottom of the eighth. “It’s definitely hard facing someone like him with a slider, a change-up and a fastball in the 80s.”
He scored the winning run on a bases-loaded walk by Pomai Kim.
For St. Francis, the burden of playing in the ILH is the same for every other program. After winning the league title and reaching the state semifinals last season, the Saints had reason to believe that their returnees, especially with Yara on the mound, could go further. With just one state-tourney berth, there was simply no margin for error.
“I thanked all my seniors for their hard work and effort,” coach Kip Akana said. “We had our chances. The underclassmen know, it’s never a sure thing making it to states.”
It was a testy battle at times, with the home-plate umpire issuing a warning to Damien’s infield after a St. Francis groundout late in the game. He also talked to both coaches as the battle during the seventh inning, stopping the game for five minutes.
“We had our chances and Damien capitalized. I have nothing but praise for Timo, his staff and their players,” Akana said.