WAILUKU — The afternoon really started for Punahou in the parking lot at Iron Maehara Stadium.
The Buffanblu were well ahead of schedule, waiting for their state championship game with Mililani. Coach Keenan Sue noticed something about his projected starter, Michael Robichaux, a seldom-used pitcher.
“Right before the game, I spied Mike in the parking lot. He looked a little nervous. I said, hey man, you know what, you’re going to do great,” Sue said. “If you don’t do great, go down firing, right? Don’t be tentative. If you’re going to go down, go down in flames. He didn’t have his best stuff, but he gave us three innings.”
Robichaux gave up two early runs, then settled in. After Tyler Shimabukuro took over in the third, he cooled off the hot bats of Mililani, and second-seeded, ILH champion Punahou (25-5-1 overall) went on to capture the state crown with a 7-3 victory in the final of the Wally Yonamine Foundation/HHSAA Baseball State Championships. That makes it 14 state baseball titles for Punahou, the first since 2010.
As usual, it was a balanced attack offensively as the Buffanblu got production from the top of the lineup to the bottom. Seven different players scored a run. For all their skill and toughness, they are not a home-run dependent team. The same is true of Mililani, which also relies heavily on defense, pitching and timely hitting.
“Mililani is a scrappy team and they kept us on the ropes in that first part. They’re aggressive at the plate and Hira (Mark Hirayama) does an amazing job with those guys,” Sue said.
Mililani had two runs on three hits in the first frame, and after four innings, the Trojans had already stranded six baserunners. Shimabukuro, who allowed one run on three hits and also walked three, retired eight of the last nine batters he faced.
Shortstop Kalae Harrison was smooth and efficient in his three games at the position. He had switched with senior classmate Jake Tsukada. Coach Sue revealed after the trophy presentation and celebration that Tsukada’s switch to second base was necessitated by a serious injury.
“We had a lot of ground balls to Jake Tsukada today. He’s our normal shortstop, and Jake actually has a pretty severe arm injury, and he’s out there literally shredding his arm. It’s a testament to the leadership and grit that Jake has to sacrifice literally his arm for his brothers. I could not say enough about him and the seniors,” Sue said.
Sue also noted that he was prepared to turn to senior pitcher Duke Clemens after Shimabukuro. Clemens, a 6-foot-5 football and basketball standout, signed to play football for UCLA next season.
“Honestly, I went in and got into a little trouble in my second and third innings. I was like, this might be it. I’m going to leave it all out there. This is the end of the season,” Shimabukuro said. “Mililani is solid all around. I give respect. It was a dog fight. I gave it everything I’ve got.”
Harrison, Tsukada and their teammates did not hide their joy, nor their tears. This team’s spirit, all season long, has been consistently high.
“We had each other’s backs all season, especially in this game. It just showed how much we love each other,” Harrison said.
“This isn’t just on us, or the nine that starts and is on the field,” Tsukada said. “It’s every single guy on the team. Every single guy that came before us in the program. Every guy that’s been looking up to us. This really is Punahou baseball tradition.”
Harrison remembers the beginning.
“We’ve been training with each other since seventh grade and eighth grade, and our whole high school career. We’re brothers. We’ve grown up together and we’ve dreamed of this. It’s been coming and now it’s here,” he said.
Tsukada didn’t mention his injury. He was focused on his teammates before, during and after the mission.
“Off the field we’re family and on the field we’re family. It’s the love we have for each other that drives us,” he said.
Sue embraced the journey along with his coaches and players, and his excitement matched that of his young Buffanblu after the game.
“It’s a team win and they’ve been a team since the start. We talked about winning doesn’t happen in the spring. It happens in the summer and fall. They’ve stuck together since day one, playing together for the last four or five years. That comes out on the field. You see how they support each other and they’re positive.”
With that, the Buffanblu finally drenched their head coach with a cooler full of ice cubes and water. The party was just starting.