There’s a snappy saying out there: “To win the game, you’ve got to be in the game.”
For Gavin Concepcion and his Pearl City baseball team, winning has become the norm. Perfection? They’re 4-0 in the rough OIA West after defeating Waianae 4-1, defending state champion Campbell 4-2, winning on the road at Mililani 7-0 and edging Aiea 9-8.
Pearl City has gone from unranked (Week 1) to No. 7 (Week 2) to No. 2 in the Star-Advertiser Baseball Top 10 in amazingly short time.
Concepcion, a former all-star catcher has opened a new chapter. Getting back in the game was part of a process that led Concepcion, a 2001 Pearl City alum, back to his roots. But that wasn’t even Step 1.
No, first step was to consult his loved ones. Two years ago, he was acclimating to his new role as a supervisor at UPS — yes, What Can Brown Do For You? — and settling into life outside the lines. He had coached most recently under Vern Ramie at Kamehameha. When Ramie stepped down after roughly two decades at the helm, Concepcion found himself living the life of a regular guy who happened to run the late-night shift.
Oh, he didn’t let go of the great American pastime altogether. Concepcion took on duties as an associate scout for the Chicago Cubs. It’s a position that he relishes, but in the end, it’s for people who love baseball.
Taking on the job at Pearl City in 2015 meant becoming a varsity head coach for the first time. He was following some big footsteps; Mitch Yamato had guided the Chargers to the state-tourney title in ’11. But Concepcion was ready to put his imprint on the program at the school he bled purple for. His years playing at college and in the minor leagues led to many lifelong friendships, and he cultivates them as he gains knowledge, always a student of the game.
With another big challenge on Wednesday afternoon against Leilehua, the Chargers have benefited from just the right balance of pitching, defense and offense. Matt Yakota has been a consistent force at the plate, leading the team in RBIs and doubles. Carson Okada has been a workhorse on the mound while Trenton Darley and Sam Prentice have been essential parts of the pitching arsenal.
Hawaii Prep World chatted with Coach Concepcion on Tuesday.
HPW: Thank you for your time, Coach. How old are you?
Concepcion: I’m 33.
HPW: And what’s your regular job?
Concepcion: I’m a full-time supervisor at UPS. The late-night shift. I get home at 6 in the morning. I’ve been there seven years and the last two as a supervisor.
HPW: What’s it been like to go from playing pro ball, then coaching high school kids?
Concepcion: When I got done playing, I coached under Vern Ramie for three or four years. Then he left Kamehameha and I got into the scouting side of it.
HPW: When you applied at Pearl City, was it a tough decision?
Concepcion: My family and I talked about it and I put in for the job.
HPW: What has that adjustment been like for the players and for you and your staff?
Concepcion: It took a little bit of time. It wasn’t painful. The idea of my personality and my assistant coaches’ personalities, that was the biggest adjustment for them. The expectations day in and day out.
(Note: The staff is comprised of Pete Arakawa, Tripper Chong, Spencer Omalza, Jordan Oshiro, Kahana Neal.)
HPW: It’s usually more comfortable by the second year.
Concepcion: Yeah, once they bought in, it got easier. Last year, we did pretty well in a division with great teams like Campbell and Mililani. This year, we’ve got everybody buying in. The underclassmen are being more vocal.
HPW: You are fairly young for a baseball head coach, but your staff is roughly in their early 30s and maybe as young as their mid-20s. I remember some of those names, some really good players in their high school days. Are they guys you’ve coached with or played with?
Concepcion: I’ve never played with any of my assistants. They’re all younger. Peter, we were both working at UPS at the time. I like his mentality and he has that fire that I love. Spencer, all my assistant coaches are younger guys and I saw them play in college. I spent a lot of time asking about the type of people they are on and off the field.
HPW: I imagine a staff this young, still active playing baseball in AJA or other leagues, it makes explaining drills and concepts more hands-on.
Concepcion: Especially with a younger staff, they jump in and it’s ‘This is how we do this’ during drills. I let them coach and teach what they know and what they’re successful with. And if I have to tweak anything I step in. The kids love it because of the interaction. ‘If coach can do it, so can I.’
HPW: There’s a certain level of success that’s a tradition at Pearl City, but this year’s team has raised up to the top already. How are they handling a perfect 4-0 record?
Concepcion: We made it known while we’re preparing these kids. Last year, we were underdogs to Campbell and Mililani, but this year, once we beat Campbell in the TV game, the kids saw what the possibilities are. Then we beat Mililani and I told them after the game, ‘It’s OK to be the best, but you have to learn how to handle it.’ We want to play the best and be the best. They’re handling it pretty well so far. They have an idea. We’re not going to shy away from it.
HPW: For high school players, there’s always that fine line between humility and supreme confidence. It’s always interesting to see teams that are mature or in that process of getting there.
Concepcion: I believe not only for myself and Peter, but for our staff that we are coaching about not only how to become the best, but how to play the game right. It’s not just about respecting the old-school mentality of not flipping bats or tossing hats. It’s about having confidence with a little swagger. We go out to perform with a little swagger, yet doing the right thing. If we have a walk-off base hit, go ahead and celebrate, but not the rah-rah stuff. The kids understand that.
HPW: No team can really survive and thrive in the West without pitching depth. It’s an arms race that your team seems to be winning. Who have been your key hurlers?
Concepcion: Trenton has that bulldog mentality on the mound. Whether it’s his best day or worst day, he’s going to battle. He gets tougher when the game gets tougher. The skill set is there. His fastball is average, but his secondary pitches, he can get outs with.
Sam is a lefty. He’s a sophomore. He’s similar to Trenton, a hard-nosed guy who goes after you. The high upside is, Sam is a two-way guy who started last year in the outfield. We didn’t throw him on the mound because he threw a lot in JV (2014-15 winter season). He’s starting to figure things out on the mound. He worked out in the offseason with a friend of mine in the Marlins organization.
HPW: Who is he?
Concepcion: Brendan Sagara, who is an awesome guy. I’ve learned a lot from him.
HPW: Wow, so Brendan is still coaching. That’s great. He was an awesome writer for us (Honolulu Star-Advertiser) while he was coaching in the minors and also at Leilehua for a stint.
Concepcion: I meet with him when he comes back. I played for him in the Frontier League.
HPW: I really appreciate your time, Coach. I’m looking forward to seeing the Chargers play soon. Best uniform in the state, maybe.
Concepcion: Thank you, Paul.