St. Francis coach Randy Langsi says his team plays every game like it’s their last. With the school set to close at the end of May, maybe that line of thinking is warranted.
But against No. 2 Punahou, the No. 9 Saints were up against the ILH’s elite. A petition for St. Francis to move up from Division II to Division I in ILH and state competition was denied twice on March 22, and Friday’s game at Ala Wai Park had a chance to serve as a proving ground that the Saints belonged right up there with everyone else in the top tiers.
Behind Kaena Keliinoi’s two home runs and Shaylann Grace’s two doubles and 2 1/3 innings of relief, the Saints came out on top 11-7, snapping the Buffanblu’s 13-game winning streak.
“It’s a statement win. It meant a lot for us to finish strong. We got to show that hey, we got enough talent,” Langsi said. “Not only that, but the school is (about to be) closed. Every game is like the last game. Every game we’re playing for is a statement win. There’s a lot behind this team that’s gonna motivate us heading into state.”
Keliinoi showcased her power at the plate and skill behind it with some stellar defense at catcher for the Saints. Before the Hawaii signee heads off to Manoa this fall, games like Friday’s are the ones she’ll remember.
“We’ve been waiting for this game all season. The first time we played them (a 7-6 loss on March 20), we beat ourselves,” she said. “But hats off to them because they have really good bats and really good defense. All around, they’re a good team in the ILH. We just worked hard this week and nothing was going to stop us.”
The Saints (11-4) jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the second after Punahou (13-3) uncharacteristically committed four errors in the frame alone. Keliinoi’s first solo shot of the game extended the lead to 4-0 in the bottom of the third.
St. Francis starter Sierrah Kupihea cruised through the Punahou lineup until surrendering a three-run home run to Tiani Wayton in the fifth, trimming the Saints’ lead to 5-4. She then yielded to Grace, who gave up the tying run in the fifth but made up for it at the plate.
After Keliinoi hit her second solo smash of the day to break a 5-5 tie in the bottom of the fifth, Grace’s second double stretched the St. Francis lead to 11-5 heading into the top of the seventh.
“We just had to come in with the right mentality and we really had to work for this. We had to prove that we can be in D-I,” Grace said. “We can be right up there with them. It came down to minimizing errors and coming together as a team.”
As for Punahou’s streak, Langsi says it was never brought up to his team heading into the game.
“We don’t think about that. We just worry about each inning and each pitch, and what we gotta do. (Punahou’s) a great them, they’re well-coached and we had some breaks, I think it went both ways today,” he said. “Today was definitely a challenge for us to stay ahead, don’t panic, score some runs and just keep it close. Thirteen, I didn’t really think about that. We didn’t even bring it up to our girls. The girls did a great job.”
A win for Punahou would have given the Buffanblu the ILH Division I regular season title and an automatic state berth. Instead, a tiebreaker with No. 4 ‘Iolani (13-3) awaits on Monday. Although the Buffanblu have beaten the Raiders twice this season, Punahou coach Dave Eldredge knows the previous matchups won’t have any bearing on the next one.
“I think there were two things. One was that we didn’t have a very good practice (Thursday) and we put a lot of emphasis on how we prepare is how we play,” Eldredge said when asked about Friday’s loss. “The other thing was looking forward for opportunities to play teams like this. They came out physical and we gotta be physical back and be a little more competitive than we were today.
“We talk about this all the time — you gotta respect the game because anything can happen at any time. We gotta be ready for a dogfight on Monday.”
As the Saints resume Division II play in the ILH on April 18 against Damien, they set out to prove they can compete with anyone. On Friday, that message was received loud and clear by the best in Division I.
“We can battle. We’ve been saying it this whole season,” Keliinoi said. “Although our school is closing, we just want to make a statement and this game showed it.”