The last bastion of high school sports in 2020-21 may be the Interscholastic League of Honolulu.
While spring sports remain on the statewide calendar for public high schools, pending approval from the state/DOE/OIA/KIF/MIL/BIIF, the ILH has drawn up plan after plan, option after option, from Plan A to Plan I for life with or without their contemporaries. That is, in baseball, the private-school ILH has nine different plans for every imaginable scenario. If the public-school Oahu Interscholastic Association doesn’t play spring sports, the ILH will trod on. Or try to.
There has been a plethora of logistical rewiring by ILH baseball coordinator Ben Valle and ILH Executive Director Blane Gaison.
“We’re looking into doing a couple more,” Valle said.
Baseball has a start date of Mar. 1 in the ILH, but the league is heavily dependent on City and County of Honolulu facilities to play games. In fact, only two ILH baseball programs have home fields to play official games. One of them is ‘Iolani, which has reformatted its field for much needed classroom space. There will be no baseball games at ‘Iolani this spring.
That leaves Mid-Pacific as the lone, playable diamond in the spring of 2021. Damon Field, in its second century of existence, also has its limitations. Because of COVID-19 protocols, ILH games that do not involve Mid-Pacific cannot be moved to Damon Field.
“At this point, any form of competition would be welcomed by one and all,” said longtime Mid-Pacific Coach Dunn Muramaru, who has meticulously tended Damon Field through the entire pandemic.
After cancelling most fall and winter sports, public-school leagues are determined to keep spring sports alive. Another cancellation would be consecutive seasons deleted for baseball, softball, boys volleyball and track and field.
The ILH cancelled most fall sports and higher-risk winter sports. Cross country meets at different campuses have been successful. The same goes for air riflery.
Coaches and administrators are cautiously optimistic because Mayor Rick Blangiardi has expressed a desire to bring organized youth and high school sports back to action. Last week, that optimism was tempered when the new mayor pointed to COVID-19 case and mortality statistics, noting that post-Super Bowl numbers in the coming week would be crucial.
Saint Louis Baseball Coach George Gusman sees a glimmer of hope in the declining number of COVID-19 cases on Oahu.
“We’re hoping. Every time I go by the freeway, I see the seven-day average and positivity rate, which is going down. The bottom line is we can’t do anything until the parks are open,” Gusman said. “We’re hoping.”
As of Monday, Oahu has a seven-day average of 38 new cases. That is well below the limit of 70 set by Blangiardi, and the 1.2 percent infection rate is less than half of the 2.5 percent threshold.
“We are in the modified ‘white period’ right now for season-2 sports,” Valle said. “We are still shooting for a March 1 baseball start date, but given the mayor’s recent announcement, we are going to have to take a look at that. We have an ILH meeting this week.”
Kamehameha practices on campus, but has never built a game-friendly baseball field on its crowded campus. Punahou’s intermediate team practices and plays on a field that has a very short distance between home plate and right field, roughly 200 feet. Hoisting up a 50-foot fence — remember old Honolulu Stadium? — just won’t do enough, apparently.
Damien practices at Park and Recreation’s Lanakila Park, DeSa Field. Saint Louis had a diamond for infield reps, but also practices off campus. The ILH has played games at Goeas Field at Koko Head District Park, as well as Patsy Mink Central Oahu Regional Park – both operated by Parks and Rec.
In years past, Ala Wai Field was a game site — another P&R facility.
“I’m still hopeful that we will get out there,” said Valle, longtime athletic director at Maryknoll, which also practices off campus. “The mayor is a big supporter of athletics, but I can tell you if we don’t have public fields, it will be extremely challenging to have an ILH season.”
The possibility of another spring sports cancellation is unthinkable.
“I didn’t look at today’s cases and rates, but it has been trending down. I’m optimistic that we will have some type of season,” Valle said. “It may not look like previous years, but hopefully we can give the kids something. I’m keeping the faith.”
Football in the ILH is still scheduled to begin on Feb. 22 — one week from today. The league’s larger programs are expected to field split squads to allow for more game action in a shortened schedule. Baseball could have a similar format.
“At this point, we haven’t ruled out anything. We’ve been working with the ILH office and we are hopeful we will have something for this season,” Valle added.
The possibility of cancellations led to some football players transferring to the mainland prior to the 2020 fall sports season. Baseball coaches aren’t expecting a similar exodus, whether it is from the ILH or OIA.
“I think they would have had to make that decision already,” longtime Mililani Baseball Coach Mark Hirayama said. “I think most schools would be starting about now on the mainland, or pretty soon.”
It seems unfair as heck, but a delay in spring sports may come down to potentially spiked numbers due to Super Bowl parties. Eyeballs will continue to be on daily COVID statistics this week.
“I would feel bad for the kids,” Hirayama said. “We need everyone to do their part to keep the numbers down.”
The nature of year-round baseball has helped seniors looking for opportunities at the next level. Scholarship offers and financial-aid packages have not dried up for baseball prospects.
“There are so many alternative venues for baseball players to get exposure outside of the traditional high school season,” Punahou Baseball Coach Keenan Sue said. “The landscape is very different and provides far more opportunity for the college-bound high school ballplayer who isn’t necessarily a Division-I prospect.”
Kamehameha Baseball Coach Daryl Kitagawa is hoping for the best.
“I think players, parents and ILH administration will wait. At least, I’m hoping they will,” he said.
Gusman is also a longtime college football referee. He worked eight games in the recently-completed season, which he said was his final run wearing the stripes. It is baseball he is longing to see.
“We just hope and pray that those in power see that we can do this safely. My guys are ready and I’m sure baseball players across the ILH and the state are hopeful they can play,” he said. “(Another cancellation) would be so unfortunate. It would be crazy to have my seniors this year just wiped out for two straight years. Those guys have been lifting on their own in small groups, doing all the things that we’ve asked. To not be able to play, baseball is a game you have to play. It’s hard to stay up on it without playing.”
ILH softball is in a similar predicament, but there are significantly more programs that have on-campus fields.