Two tournaments, one championship and a tie for the other one.
Hawaii Elite 2G is doing quite all right after three weeks on the road, covering Georgia, Arizona and Texas. The squad followed up its 2-all tie with powerhouse East Cobb (Ga.) in the final of the Perfect Game Battle of the Southeast by capturing the Perfect Game Central Elite crown on the Fourth of July in Houston.
En route to the title, Hawaii Elite 2G overpowered UC Baseball 9-2, South Texas Sliders 12-0 and Premier Baseball Futures 8-0 (five innings) in pool play. In the semifinal round, Hawaii Elite 2G outlasted Banditos 17U Elite 5-1, and rallied with three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning for a 6-5 victory over Marucci Elite Texas in the title game.
The team, coached by Brandon “Bu” Toro and staff, is 10-0-1 with another tournament to begin on Tuesday. Despite the absence of three key players, Hawaii Elite 2G has thrived on its versatility. Parker Grant, a Maryknoll senior-to-be, was named one of the top pitchers of the Georgia tourney. This weekend, he was selected outright MVP thanks to clutch hitting. Zach Tenn of ‘Iolani was picked MVP pitcher.
“This tournament, I can use his own words: ‘I’m seeing the ball well.’ It’s a little bit surprising for people to hear he carried us offensively,” Toro said of Grant, who socked a key home run. “He had another ball that landed off the top of the fence.”
Toro’s team was deep with arms. Keola Yim (Kamehameha) won the first game in pool play at Houston. Tenn won the second game and Kamehameha’s Shaydan Lovediro hurled a no-hitter as Hawaii Elite went 3-0.
FB: 84-86, 87
— ✭Five Tool Texas✭ (@FiveToolTexas) July 6, 2021
Kamehameha-Maui’s Keoni Painter, MVP of the Battle of the Southeast, pitched Hawaii Elite to a win in the semifinals. In that game, shortstop Elijah Ickes suffered an injury, played through it — and had a crucial base hit. Toro elected to rest Ickes and insert Grant at shortstop, his normal position at Maryknoll.
Kodey Shojinaga, the catcher/corner infielder/pitcher from Mid-Pacific, won the title game on the mound for Elite. Toro and his staff studied their opponents and saved Grant for the final, but the injury to Ickes created a domino effect.
“The good thing about Kodey, when you go to Mid-Pacific, you’re a jack of all trades playing for coach Dunn (Muramaru). A starting catcher, third baseman, first baseman, ace pitcher, good hitter. I can’t tell you how valuable this guy is to this team,” Toro said. “The fact that every school on the West Coast is looking at this guy, they don’t know where they’re going to play him, but they want him. He throws 85-86 mph right out the door. In Georgia, he won us so many outs on the bases with back picks. People just stopped stealing.”
On Tuesday, Hawaii Elite 2G opens play in the Don Mattingly World Series hosted by Five-Tool. The tourney is six days long with a double-elimination format that will include 21 of the country’s top programs.
“It’s not a USA (Baseball) tournament with 100 teams. (Five-Tool) kind of weeds out the everyday kind of team,” Toro said. “A big help for us to even get into that tournament was Tim Arakawa. He helped out with the (Hawaii) Sandlot Classic and works for CAA. They partner up with Five-Tool.”
After the Mattingly event, Hawaii Elite plays in a Perfect Game tournament in Dallas July 16-21.
“That’s big and very competitive, the biggest Perfect Game tournament in Texas. It’s similar to the one we just won in Houston, a WWBA, which is kind of their most premier events,” Toro noted.
The lengthy, barnstorming baseball tour is rarely done by teams from Hawaii when it comes to baseball. Softball players have done it for years through the California circuit, with several standout players joining the Batbusters organization.
“Softball has always been ahead of baseball with Batbusters, the Agbayani girls and the Maryknoll kids. Travel ball through softball is the norm. Women’s sports, volleyball and softball have been doing it a long time from Hawaii,” Toro said. “We’re trying to level the playing field for our boys a little bit. What’s most rewarding is seeing the excitement in the (college) coaches. The LMU assistant coach and head coach, now we have relationships. We’re colleagues. We talk. We have that connection.”
A similar trust exists with a new face to the islands.
“(New Hawaii coach) Rich Hill recruited me. He was at USF. Now we have this communication. The connection was Chad Konishi, who was his assistant coach,” said Toro, 46, who wound up at Texas Tech. “It’s beautiful. It means, look out, our boys are going to be playing at all these tournaments. I realized last year, this is what you’ve got to do. You have to. You’re seeing the rewards of it.”
For better or worse, college coaches are reaching deeper into the pool of younger talent nationwide.
“They need to know who is that sophomore or freshman who is up and coming. That’s what’s materializing. I have my own feelings about that, but programs start to trust you more,” Toro said. “We don’t do a tryout. Most of our staff are high school, always evaluating. We all have friends in the youth leagues. Hawaii Kai, in town, West side. Our eyes are always open. It’s because of that generational player, we’re always in constant assessment. If there’s any downside, it’s not everybody’s getting an opportunity, but that’s OK. You can’t water it down.”
That’s why, after building the organization for years, the Hawaii Elite 2G staff is willing to go the extra mile — or several thousand — to get island players on the same diamond with the nation’s best.
“We’ve got to represent with what we can and elevate the game for the state. Hopefully, that’s what the boys will aspire to with Hawaii Elite, and you’ll be the next Parker, Beau (Sylvester), Kodey. They’re graduating (in 2022), so who’s the next group? It started from previous years, but now it’s taking the next step,” Toro said.
A key connector in the process is Todd Koishigawa, a former Pac-Five coach. He and his father, Jim, once owned Batter’s Box in Waipio and Kalaeloa, Toro said.
“Todd moved to Scottsdale (Ariz.) a few years ago. 2G is Todd’s company, 2G Pro Gear. He sells apparel, batting gear. 2G is a word play off God given,” Toro said. “His dad used to run Cal Ripken (leagues and tournaments) for years.”
The missing Elite players — Braden Hiraki, Kaena Kiakona and Freddy Rodrigues (Sacramento, Calif.) — are busy with other engagements.
“(Central Elite in Houston) was a five-day tourney, so we could get away with our four pitchers,” Toro said. “What’s really, really good about Perfect Game is higher visibility, just top notch. The stats they provide not just after the game, but in game, make it easier to prepare.”
The coaches and players got to see the machinations of what top-shelf organizations do in a typical summer of baseball on the continent.
“Coming from far away, we have a team intact. The team we played in the semifinals, the Banditos, is probably the best organization in Houston. They’re kind of controversial. The coaches are very outspoken. Players are on the edge. Even if their talent is a little down in one year, they’re still tough,” Toro said.
“We were down 5-3, and we scored a bunch of runs to come back. They brought in a guy late to the game. He put on a jersey in the dugout, and he popped up. We had a lightning delay, he gives his coach his shirt and he left. It’s funny. He has the same name as a former big leaguer, Carlos Beltran,” Toro said. “I believe that was his son.”
In Georgia, the concept of different lineups within a team for pool play and bracket play stunned Toro.
“Coach Ash (Kuhaulua) was on the bases. He talked to the East Cobb player. ‘How did you do in pool play?’ The kid told him, ‘I don’t do pool play. This team is the bracket play team.’ In pool play, their so-called backups, who are also D-I (recruits), they play. Then the big guns come in and play in the (championship) bracket. All the arms are fresh. Players are fresh. It’s a dynamic when a kid tells you. Their 17U has 40 kids, so many kids from Florida,” Toro said. “You’re just flying in for high-visibility events.”
Toro respects the process.
“They get it. Up here, it’s all about that visibility and the offer. Getting recruited. Baseball is a business. It’s not in Hawaii. We potluck and barbecue afterward. Up here, this is your backpack, keep your carry-on ready. These boys have frequent-flier miles. For a lot of the mainland kids, they’re a little more advanced because it’s ingrained in them,” Toro said. “That’s the model.”
The longtime coach also noticed the different atmosphere players experience in a high-level mainland tournament compared to high-intensity high school competition.
“When you compete at home, because there’s pride on the line, it’s a different kind of competition. This year, I’ve seen it firsthand. I saw it in the ILH this year,” said Toro, who is an assistant at Kamehameha. “So much was put on because we had only one round. Kids playing tight, not relaxed. Then you come to Perfect Game and the elevated competition, then you flourish.”
That doesn’t mean high school baseball isn’t valuable in the big picture of recruiting and drafting.
“What you do outside Hawaii probably matters more unless you’re a physical specimen who throws 92-95 mph. That will get you recruited off film, but nobody does that, so they need to see you play,” Toro said. “In high school, the good thing is you learn to play with anxiety. Like a 2-1 Kamehameha-Saint Louis game. Extra innings. That kind of pride, emotion, anxiety, all those different kinds of emotions, how you step up and perform, you cannot duplicate that. It’s a grind. Punahou and ‘Iolani, oh my gosh, and there was so much parity. ‘Iolani doesn’t make the final, but they were literally a run away from being the champion.”
The experience of traditions and school pride still have the most unique setting.
“At Perfect Game, the crowds get better, stakes are higher, but a night game at Hans (L’Orange Park), that’s tremendous. It can’t be duplicated for us. Some relish the opportunity outside and that’s human nature. It’s a little bit easier for yourself, coaches requiring less tactical type of play,” Toro added.
In fact, his staff makes sure every bat is swung, far more often than in a tightly-contested ILH game.
“We pride ourselves on being athletic and letting our players be athletic. Bunting players over, we have that in our bag and we’ll pull it out at times. The past tournament, we used it more, but it’s not like the ILH, from the first inning moving runners into scoring position,” Toro said.
.@hawaiielite2g’s Beau Sylvester (@beausylvester18) with the sweet throw down to second from his knees. Big time catcher, looking forward to seeing this dude at the #MattinglyWS this week. #FiveToolArm #FiveToolDefense
— Five Tool Baseball (@FiveTool) July 6, 2021
— ✭Five Tool Texas✭ (@FiveToolTexas) July 7, 2021
The scenario for Sylvester has been mind-boggling. He has a chance to be named to the all-tourney team when it is announced, Toro said.
“At the Area Code Games, he elevated his stock not only for D-Is, but for pro scouts. Beau just showed out. He pretty much separated himself from his peers. The momentum started riding for him there. At USA Baseball, there’s 100 teams. It’s scouting. They identified maybe eight catchers and Beau was one of them,” Toro said. “They do a workout and that’s when they do another cut for the national team tryouts in North Carolina. So Beau is the only one from Hawaii that was invited from the 17 age group.”
Sylvester’s potential is great enough that coaches think out of the box, perhaps a bit too much.
“A kid like Beau is intriguing to a lot of teams. He’s almost athletic to a fault. Coaches see that and like to think they could move him,” Toro said. “But he’s a bonafide catcher.”
Championships are nice, but Toro and staff don’t chase them.
“Winning brings visibility, but they boys are there to really show their skill. To show they can play at the next level. Ultimately, that’s the most important thing. We would trade championships for offers, for opportunities,” he said. “When Tennessee or Texas A&M are there, they don’t want to see Beau make a good sacrifice bunt. If championships come with it, awesome.”
By the end of the Houston tourney, the pride of Hawaii’s players glowed.
“To be honest, it’s funny, but I didn’t even realize they gave trophies. It doesn’t dawn on you until the boys have it,” Toro said. “For Perfect Game, it’s more iconic.”