Tony Saffery and the Kapolei Hurricanes have experience being the top seed from the Oahu Interscholastic Association at the state tournament, but it was 11 years ago.
So that means the last time his softball team was league champions, the girls on the team this season were between the ages of 3 and 7.
The Hurricanes are the top-seeded team and have a bye in the Division I first round of the DataHouse/HHSAA Softball State Championships that start Tuesday. On Wednesday, Kapolei (13-3) meets the winner of Tuesday’s Lahainaluna vs. Leilehua game.
So how is Saffery and the Hurricanes approaching this tournament with a loaded field of top-notch teams? Both defending state champion Campbell and Mililani — teams Kapolei beat in the OIA semifinals and final by one run — are in it, as is Kaiser, which went undefeated in the OIA West. League champions and seeded teams Kamehameha (No. 2), Maui (No. 3) and Waiakea (No. 4) are all formidable foes, too.
“In the OIAs, Kaimuki had us at bay for a little while and same with Kailua,” Saffery said. “It wasn’t a cakewalk. Kailua scored first and it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth inning when we started tallying runs. We’ve been starting too late and ending strong. We’ve got to get started earlier. But maybe that’s just not their M.O.. Maybe we just need to let them flow.”
Last week, the Hurricanes had Monday off and came back to the field to do conditioning on Tuesday, which was three days after the 6-5 win over Mililani for the OIA crown.
“We let them catch up with schoolwork,” the coach said. “We wanted to get that weekend out of their system. They’re welcoming the challenge, and breaking a great sweat. They’re even-keeled.”
In 2004, Kapolei captured the state championship with a spark plug named Tajia Acierto in the pitcher’s circle. She also led the Hurricanes to the 2005 state final, where they lost to Mililani.
“Tajia and them during that era, those kids — and Tajia was 5-feet-2, 115 pounds, but she was a bull!! and could squat 245 — hit the weight room. They came out to practice early, left late, hit the weight room after practice, before practice. They were self-motivated.”
Three from the one family — Valana Manuma, Malama Manuma and Anita Manuma — along with catcher Jasmine Yoro — were an “incredible” core, according to Saffery.
“Tajia comes back and visits sometimes,” Saffery said. “She texted me after the Campbell game and after the Mililani game. That just energized me, man. She wrote, ‘I know the girls can do this. Tell them just do this. Be a Nike person.”
Pitcher Sadie Kapaku-You and shortstop Sala Pedebone are the backbone of the team this season.
“This season, we’re a lot more individuals, but they’re starting to trust each other more instead of pointing fingers,” Saffery said. “They’re accepting responsibility and moving on. There was a lot of finger pointing in the last couple of years, and I say that respectfully. Everybody wanted you to be the onus of that error. Now, it’s be the onus of the error and somehow you flush it. Before, we were carrying it over to the next inning and the next inning and we couldn’t recover.”
The road from here to the state title will not be easy. Campbell got as high as 13th in the CBS/Max Preps national poll, Kamehameha won the highly competitive Interscholastic League of Honolulu, Mililani has pitcher Aubree Kim who has been one of the best pitchers in the state for four years, and Pearl City has shown it can compete with any opponent with pitcher Tyanna Kaaialii.
“Campebell with coach Shag (Michael Hermosura) and Mililani and coach Rose (Antonio) out there, for me, I love those contests, and it brings the best out of myself as a coach and it brings the best out of the kids, so you know, beating them, it was sweet,” Saffery said. “I ain’t gonna lie to you. Every year for the last handful of years, we never beat them. This year, we beat Mililani here (at Kapolei) 2-0 and it was like, ‘That’s with Aubree on the mound.’ … And I love Aubree, she’s a competitor. In the OIAs, facing those two teams, we just had to tell ourselves, ‘Not tonight.’ You can make errors against some teams and get away with it, but not (OIA teams) Mililani, Campbell, Pearl City, even Leilehua.”