Not even the week-long forecast of rain on Oahu can dim the enthusiasm on baseball and softball diamonds.
Or batting cages and pitching mounds. The long-awaited return of high school sports is underway no matter how many inches of precipitation falls. In public-school leagues leagues statewide, late March is the guesstimated return for spring sports.
“I didn’t get anything concrete yet,” longtime Mililani Baseball Coach Mark Hirayama said. “It’s possible conditioning may start on Mar. 29. Our students are supposed to start getting back into the classrooms after spring break.”
Spring break is Mar. 15-19 in Hawaii public schools.
Longtime Mililani Softball Coach Rose Antonio concurred.
“I think it’s Mar. 29,” she said, noting that there will be a meeting with administrators on Wednesday.
Another longtime softball coach, Campbell’s Michael “Shag” Hermosura, believes the timetable could be sooner.
“As of now, we are supposed to report on the 15th of this month, probably for conditioning, then later, a week or two, to work on skills,” Hermosura said. “As of now, we will wait for our athletic director for more information.”
In the private-school Interscholastic League of Honolulu, tryouts for spring sports began last week.
“The energy is up. We missed the kids plenty, so it’s awesome to see them together again,” Kamehameha Coach Daryl Kitagawa said.
The Warriors are in the process of scheduling preseason scrimmages, but there is a major catch, so to speak. While Oahu has improved its status to Tier 3, the lingering COVID-19 pandemic means public fields are still not accessible to high school sports without permits. For the ILH, that means waiting for access to key sites like Patsy Mink Central Oahu Regional Park (CORP), Goeas Field at Koko Head District Park and Ala Wai Field for baseball, and Sand Island State Park for softball.
In ILH baseball, there is a viable field for games at Damon Field, Mid-Pacific Institute. Games between non-MPI teams will not be allowed there due to the school’s coronavirus policy. That hasn’t stopped coaches from trying.
“We are scheduling some preseason scrimmages,” Kitagawa said. “Our varsity is going to Mid-Pacific next week. Our junior varsity will go up, too, but I’m not sure what date. They’ve been kind enough to host us since they have a facility. I appreciate Coach Dunn (Muramaru).”
‘Iolani, Kamehameha, Punahou, Saint Louis have limited facilities for various reasons. So do Division II baseball programs Damien, Hanalani and Pac-Five, but they are striving to make do. Baseball is back.
“We’ve been practicing on campus the whole time, practicing social distance, face coverings. It’s a little different, but not too bad,” Kitagawa said. “We’re going to do whatever we’ve got to do.”
For some teams, there’s enough room on campus to practice. For others, that is a luxury.
“I would say it’s the new normal. We usually rely on City and County fields like CORP to practice, but as we know, we can’t get permits. So we’ve been doing what we can at school,” Damien Coach Skyler Tengan said. “Hitting in cages, throwing and some defense stuff. It feels good to just start going again and, hopefully, the City and County open the fields soon.”
At MPI, Coach Muramaru spent many a quiet day keeping the grass trimmed, the cages and training areas clean for the past 12 months. It was downright lonely at times. Now, the atmosphere has returned.
“It’s great. Can do with less rain,” he said.
The Owls, like other teams, have adapted.
“Practices at the beginning were separated by groups or cohorts. Each cohort had their own baseballs to work with. Social distancing, masks, everything was sprayed with ozone water, but since Mar. 1, the only difference is that the players are all wearing masks and (still) social distancing,” Muramaru said.
Punahou baseball is in an unexpected scenario from a logistics viewpoint. The pandemic means the lower field is available with no Punahou Carnival on site.
“In a typical year, we are encumbered by the carnival infrastructure during the start of the season,” Buffanblu Coach Keenan Sue said. “We didn’t have to contend with that this year due to the later start, so for us, it actually ended up being far more efficient than being bused to different parks.”
The evolution and survival of prep sports are dependent on support at the ground level.
“Our athletic department, trainers and security staff have gone to great lengths to set up a safe environment for us. We’re fortunate to have a lot of interest from student-athletes in attending tryouts, so we tackled the density issue by holding tryouts on different days for the different levels,” Sue noted.
Perhaps more than any other segment in society, high school student-athletes are moving forward as allowed.
“Everyone is wearing masks, respecting social distancing and using hand sanitizer. The energy is always high during tryout week, but this year there was a palpable feeling of gratefulness and heightened camaraderie amongst the players and coaches. We’re all very excited to be back out there,” said Sue, who led Punahou to the state title in 2019. “It’s great to see the guys out there working their craft and getting better, making up for lost time. Their hard work and hunger are inspiring.”
‘Iolani was early in developing strategies to counter the pandemic and maximize its campus for reopening. The baseball infield is home to tented gathering areas, primarily for lunch. The Raiders use their batting cages and outfield grass to get workouts done.
So there it is. The ILH baseball season hinges on availability of C&C fields. With new cases declining, Mayor Rick Blangiardi ushered Oahu into Tier 3 from Tier 2 in late February, and is anticipating a potential leap to Tier 4 on Mar. 25, with approval from Gov. David Ige. Tier 3 allows groups of 10 on a field, but there’s the permit situation.
“I’m not sure what the protocol will be for scrimmages this preseason, but the kids deserve our best efforts,” Sue said. “I think we’re relegated to playing other ILH schools, if at all. I believe those details will be worked out by the respective athletic departments. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes for administrators and each week it’s a moving target. They’re doing a great job trying to balance the immense pressure from the parties who want to return to play, and the safety and health of not only the players, but the larger student body they’re connected to.”
Softball fields, by nature, are slightly more common at ILH campuses. Or at Punahou, Mid-Pacific and Kamehameha, specifically. Maryknoll built its softball facility at Sand Island State Recreation Area from scratch. ‘Iolani built its softball field on the grounds next to Ala Wai Elementary School — technically City and County property — and plays its home games at Ala Wai Community Park, making neither inaccessible at this point. One way or another, each private-school softball program is trying to make this work, rain or shine.
“It was great to practice this week, although we got rained out a few days,” Mid-Pacific Softball Coach Aiko Gojo said. “Practices are definitely different. When we got rained on, we couldn’t all go to the batting cage or weight room like we did before. We have to be mindful of washing hands, keeping the equipment sanitized and being at least six feet apart.”
Punahou extended its softball tryout period.
“We had had our three days of tryouts, actually took the whole week. We just practiced and got as much work as we could, no divisions,” Buffanblu Coach Dave Eldredge said.
The ILH began its first season of Division II softball in 2020, and saw that end with the cancellation. Softball teams are doing without JV teams in the ILH.
“We have 30 girls to create D-I and D-II teams. It’s a good move. We had JV prior to that, but it’s not like we have a boatload of girls like volleyball and basketball, so D-II helps seniors to continue playing,” Eldredge said.
The notion of D-II — or Division I-AA — softball in the ILH came up in 2019 on Eldredge’s suggestion.
“Last year, they reconsidered it,” said Eldredge, who is an associate athletic director.
Without OIA teams to scrimmage and play with, ILH softball teams are grinding away with drills.
“The OIA, from what I understand, is one week away from practicing. Then, there would be no club teams we can scrimmage,” Eldredge said. “We’re probably a week away from calling and scrimmaging.”
In pre-pandemic times, he would possibly bring in some alumni for workouts and scrimmages on weekends. Not now.
“There are state policies, city rules and school rules and policies. For me to organize an alumni game for a weekend would be a great idea, but I would have to knock on someone’s door on campus to allow this,” Eldredge said.
The evolution and adaptation continue.
(Updated 12:30 p.m., Campbell Coach Michael “Shag” Hermosura.)
(Updated 1:10 p.m. ‘Iolani’s softball field is on C&C property, not Ala Wai Elementary School.)