Somewhere between the seven baseball state championships (2004-10) at Punahou and this first season as head coach at Maryknoll, Eric Kadooka has transformed and evolved one step at a time.
Losing, though, still leaves a bitter taste. When he looked across the diamond at his former program, Kadooka saw the Buffanblu, a 7-5 team in a ruthless ILH chase, armed with talent and experience and depth up and down the roster.
His own Spartans? Young. Just three senior starters, including ace Matthew Dunaway. The right-hander hurled a gutsy game against No. 7-ranked Punahou, allowing just one hit, an unearned run, in going the distance in a 1-0 loss. Five strikeouts, seven walks, 99 pitches. Punahou’s run came after a pop fly was dropped and was aided by three walks, including one that forced the go-ahead run home. It was just one more example of how close and how far Maryknoll is from the elite of the ILH and the state.
Punahou, in impeccable Under Armour faux flannel, dry-fit uniforms, continues to embrace its tradition.
“Look good, and theoretically play good,” current Buffanblu coach Keenan Sue said. “But for us, it hasn’t quite been the case.”
The uniforms they wore on Tuesday night are a throwback to a time when Pal Eldredge was the head coach. The wide sleeves. The stylish ‘P’. The high hem and striped leggings. Not every high school team will accept tradition to this extreme, but to a man, every Buffanblu wears the retro unis spot on.
Sue’s memories of Buffanblu baseball are vivid and fresh. Eldredge’s 1989 team, which included Kyle Hoshide and Chad Konishi, was the last one to win a state crown under him. It was that era that inspired Sue, who designed the current Buffanblu uniform. In Sue’s senior season, ’97, the Buffanblu featured Justin Wright (Stanford, Florida Marlins) and reached the state final before losing. Soon after that, Eldredge retired from coaching.
During Kadooka’s reign, Punahou built up an arsenal of surplus talent, particularly on the mound. One season, they had 13 pitchers, all of superior talent and skill. Kadooka went back to the ‘40s and ‘50s for inspiration when it came to their threads. The blockish ‘P’ on their hats came from that long-ago period, and though new uniforms came along, Kadooka kept his teams in those same uniforms throughout that unparalleled and unprecedented title run.
Uniforms aren’t the only thing that the coaches pay mind to. Punahou has gotten a key edge with the success of senior pitcher Kyle Uemura, who tossed six scoreless innings against Maryknoll for the win. Even on a night when Uemura, a craftsman who relies on guile, doesn’t have his best, he kept Maryknoll off the scoreboard.
“I just didn’t feel it with my legs,” the senior said of warmups in the pen. “I tried to keep it low, stick to my process. Listen to my body.”
Kadooka knows Uemura quite well.
“Last year, I’m not sure if he got cut or didn’t play much. He wasn’t on their fall team,” Kadooka recalled. “So he played with us. I still have a soft spot for Punahou kids.”
On Tuesday, however, Uemura was the opposition. Dunaway was at times masterful.
“Matt’s been doing this every game this season except for one,” Kadooka said. “He deserves better.”
Maryknoll’s youth, the change in culture, the elevated standards — Kadooka had hoped for better results, and though he has patience, it remains to be seen how much he still has. At 1-11, it’s sometimes difficult to see the silver lining.
It is there, though. Their two Intermediate teams combined for six wins after going without a victory last year. The bulk of the young talent is in seventh grade, Kadooka said. If they’re ready the day they become eligible for varsity baseball, they’re going on the field. The younger group is already acclimated to workout standards. The older group hasn’t quite bought into the blueprint.
“I don’t really have three years or whatever time it might take, but we’re still teaching. This is life. I’m seeing things from the opposite side now,” Kadooka said. “In 20 years, I’ve never seen so much parity in the ILH.”
The sun was falling over the Leeward Coast, and Hans L’Orange Park’s lights turned the scenario into prime time as the Buffanblu and Spartans departed to clear the way for the second game of the twin bill between ‘Iolani and Kamehameha.
Kadooka may not be as secretive with his pre-game lineup, or as feisty as he was during his time at Punahou. However, on Tuesday he picked his spots and raised questions with the umpiring crew just the same, hands in pockets, a diplomat with persistence. Down 1-0, he let his hottest hitter, Shane Himeda, swing away in the top of the seventh with no outs and runners on second and first.
Limitations in other areas have brought Kadooka to a different strategy. With Dunaway near 100 pitches, Kadooka measured his options and determined that his team was better off swinging for a two-run inning rather than attempt to bunt and settle for (probably) one run.
He was willing to weigh the reality, and long after talking with his team, it all made sense. Sure, a young team went 0-for-3 in the final inning with a runner in scoring position, and a potential go-ahead run on first base. Kadooka could play it safe and be content to stay close. But even now, he wants to know what he has. Hope is a good place to start, but he will continue to damn the torpedoes and get a much better sense of what he has in these final three games. The future of Maryknoll baseball won’t be about settling, and it is being built today brick by brick, one step at a time.